Used books flying off virtual shelves

Services: Web sites give bibliophiles a way to track down hard-to-find volumes, and prove a boon to secondhand sellers.

May 22, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

For Diane Hess and her family, the saga of the missing surgeon began the day her father lent out his prized 1956 biography of British surgical pioneer John Hunter.

That was 25 years ago. The family never saw the book again.

"It just vanished," recalls Hess, a 38-year-old graphic designer in San Antonio, Texas.

Her father, a San Antonio surgeon who admired Hunter for helping establish the profession three centuries ago, never got over the loss. For years he scoured musty secondhand-book shops across the country looking for a copy of the biography by Garet Rogers. He even traveled to a London museum dedicated to Hunter. No luck.

Then, last fall, Hess stumbled upon, a flashy online purveyor of used, rare and out-of-print books. On a whim, she punched in the title of her father's missing book.

And there it was.

Alibris and a handful of other online services are blowing the dust off the sleepy world of used books, putting once hard-to-find titles at readers' fingertips and changing the way thousands of shop owners around the United States peddle their musty tomes.

"The Internet has been a boon to the used-books business," says Susan Siegel, who writes a popular series of guides to used-book stores across the United States and Canada and conducts in-depth surveys of the business.

According to Siegel, the number of used-book sellers in the United States climbed to 7,095 last year, up 21 percent from the previous year. She attributes much of that growth to the Net.

"It's given used books greater visibility and opened up this vast market of people who've never considered buying them before."

The used-books industry is famously eccentric and disorganized. Mom-and-pop dealers remain the heart of the trade, snapping up books from estate sales, flea markets and readers who shoulder them in by the boxful.

But their inventories have remained largely out of reach; often, shop owners themselves lose track of what they have. While bibliophiles and rare-book collectors relish the treasure hunt, casual readers often find it a drag -- or impossible.

Al Stoner, a 39-year-old computer programmer in Tannersville, Pa., spent his entire adulthood searching for Ginn's "Down Cherry Street," a Dick-and-Jane-style reader he owned in the first grade. The book taught him how to read and kept him company while his parents struggled through a divorce. After the breakup, the book got lost in the shuffle, but last year he found a copy online. When it arrived in the mail, he says, "I hugged it. It was a very, very emotional moment."

If not for the Net, Stoner says, "I don't think I would have ever found it."

The big three online used-book services are Alibris, Bibliofind and Advanced Book Exchange (ABE), all of which catalog millions of used books from thousands of dealers across the United States.

Bibliofind and ABE are listing services that charge dealers a flat fee to log their inventories. Each entry typically includes a price, physical description of the book, and contact information for the bookseller. Buyers are responsible for contacting the bookseller via e-mail or phone to close the sale.

Alibris, on the other hand, acts as a middleman, buying volumes from booksellers, repackaging them under its brand and shipping them directly to customers. For this, it tacks on a 20 percent premium to the price.

Services like these have not only made books easier to find but also given booksellers access to a worldwide market of readers.

Clifford Panken struggled for 12 years to establish his Book Rendezvous stores in Baltimore. A few years ago he started listing his inventory with services such as Alibris and Bibliofind. Now 50 percent of his orders come over the Net.

These days he ships 100 books a week to customers in countries as far away as China, Argentina, Japan and England. Panken says he's had to bring in extra staff to help with the cataloging and shipping.

"Every night we're packing books," he says. "It's become a very substantial portion of our business."

Some used-book sellers have closed their nonvirtual doors altogether. The Tiber Book Shop, for years a fixture on the 25th Street book block in Charles Village, closed in August 1998 after watching walk-in traffic slow to a dribble. Today it operates exclusively in cyberspace.

"Things that had been on our shelves for three or five years we can sell in a week," says Karen Erickson, who oversees the store's computer database.

But the marriage of e-commerce with the eccentric used-book business has also sparked a culture clash. At its epicenter, in Emeryville, Calif., is Alibris.

With 100 employees, $55 million in venture capital and a 400,000-square-foot warehouse outside Reno, Nev., Alibris is everything the typical used-book shop is not. Since its launch in in 1998, the company has spent millions to impose order on the archaic industry and generate buzz for books long dead.

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