The Book Keeper

Yesterday's used-book dealer was a far-flung librarian of Babel. Success on the Internet may make tomorrow's a desk-bound day trader.

Back in the old days--say, five or six years ago--trying to get your hands on an out-of-print book might have conceivably involved haunting the used bookstores of the Twin Cities for years without ever laying eyes on a copy. You could wander, as I have, through dozens of shops all over the country, to no avail. Now, in less than a minute on the Internet, you can locate often dozens of copies of long-out-of-print titles, at often ridiculously affordable prices. It's so easy it's almost disappointing. The twisted thrill of the scavenger hunt has been replaced by instant gratification, the indolent route to the grail.

With virtually no effort you can locate R. Gordon and Thomas Campbell Wasson's two-volume Mushrooms of Russia for $2,750 or a paperback copy of Valley of the Dolls for $3. If you were willing to shell out the almost $10,000 it would cost you, you could also locate the 1939 first edition, first printing of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, surely a title of local interest, but one that I've never seen in the Cities. The Internet truly is Alice's Restaurant (and you could locate a copy of that cookbook as well, with the laminated-paper-recording insert intact). But the catch is this: I say "locate" precisely because there is a little bit of wiggle room in that word for the hypothetical, and because no other word is quite right. Because such an important part of what makes used-book scrounging so much fun is the tangible experience, the hours spent browsing in a bookstore, moving from section to section, picking up books and turning pages, killing time with dead people and lost dogs.

Peter Lochner

I've driven hundreds, even thousands of miles to root around in used bookstores. Many of my favorite places in the world are bookstores: Vargo's in Bozeman, Montana; Plunkett and Higgins in Austin, Minnesota; Pleasant Street Books in Woodstock, Vermont; and the Dickson Street Bookshop in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Of those stores only the last two maintain listings on the World Wide Web, but no amount of time spent scrolling through their limited Internet inventory could ever begin to capture the experience of visiting such places, the feel of each establishment, the compound splendors of their collections, the knowledge and character of the proprietors. It's like seeing the track listings from Rubber Soul but not being able to actually hear the music itself. If any of those stores were ever to disappear entirely into the furthest reaches of cyberspace it would be the equivalent of reducing Paris to nothing but a splash of faded color on a map.

Still, remember those old days I was talking about? Imagine a tiny out-of-the-way book dealer who has been stuck with a painfully expensive collection of beekeeping books purchased from a needy war widow in a serious lapse of judgment. Think of what goes through the bookseller's mind as he blows the dust off the top of the volumes on a schedule that follows the lunar calendar, year after year. Imagine that poor dealer praying to God every day to send him an aspiring apiculturist. Imagine him praying in vain.

 

Today if you throw a copy of Rich Man, Poor Man you're likely to hit an Internet bookseller in the Twin Cities. The days of sitting around waiting for that amateur apiculturist to walk through the door and take those beekeeping books off your hands are ancient history. Anybody with a backroom full of old science-fiction paperbacks can move product on the World Wide Web. Most established dealers have posted at least a portion of their inventory on the Internet as well, and many of them would tell you that they couldn't survive without the additional business it provides. Where there is not outright enthusiasm for the new reality of doing business on the Web, there is generally, at the least, grudging acceptance it.

James Williams ("That's the second-most-common name in the English language," he'll tell you), is the owner of the Sixth Chamber used bookstore in St. Paul, and one day in November 1999 he uploaded his entire inventory of 35,000 books onto Advanced Book Exchange (www.abebooks.com). By that point he had done his homework, installed his own server, and had developed a pretty sophisticated system for tracking and managing his inventory. His was a modest store in those days, a tidy 1,800 square feet of mostly general-interest stock. He was, he'll admit, pretty excited about the Internet. But two weeks after he'd posted his book holdings nothing had happened. "I started thinking maybe the Internet wasn't going to be so great after all," he remembers.

Then one day he went home for the weekend, and when he came in and checked his e-mail Monday morning there were more than 100 messages--all ABE orders. Every time he put the phone down it rang again. It was like one of those commercials for an e-business startup. By the middle of December he'd received 2,500 orders. Going into the venture, he'd had no postage meter and only a couple of employees. Williams worked 80 to 90 hours a week to process all his orders. He realized he needed to fine-tune his arrangement, which he did in short order while hiring extra help. Now he has an efficient system in place, and he's still averaging 40 orders a day.

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