By Jesse Marx
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He finds the notion that Alibris would coerce dealers laughable. "This notion that we're going to somehow strong-arm a dealer?" Manley says. "There's just no way. We're simply trying to use the business-to-business power of the Internet to help dealers around the world sell books. There's no enrollment or subscription at Alibris. It's an entirely voluntary relationship. Dealers can come and go as they please."
And what about those dealers whose entire inventories ended up in the Alibris warehouse? "We buy lots of big collections," Manley says. "There aren't too many people who can buy 100,000 books at a whack, but we can. Dealers come to us. But suppose you're a book dealer with a store full of books and someone was to come in off the street and say, 'I'll take everything'? You'd be pretty happy, wouldn't you? Believe me, though, you can't force people to sell you their books."
When that last question was relayed to him, David Dale didn't hesitate: "Be sure to give him careful directions to my store," he said, and chuckled.
Like the Lauries and David Dale, Larry Dingman has been a fixture on the local and national antiquarian-book scene for years. He has run his Dinkytown Antiquarian bookstore near the University campus for 21 years, and also like Dale, has scaled back his operations over the years. He now keeps a smaller, cluttered space in the same building as his old store while continuing to coordinate the used- and antiquarian-book fair at the State Fairgrounds every summer. Unlike Dale, Dingman hasn't yet climbed aboard the Internet bandwagon, although even he admits that it's only a matter of time.
"For years I've been doing my Tim Conway impression of someone sprinting towards the Internet," he says. "I've had more people on my ass trying to get me on there. I could tell you that I'm ready to go, but I was saying the same thing nine months ago. The truth is that I'm not in any hurry; this stuff isn't ice cream. It's not going anywhere. I've spent my lifetime acquiring books, and I'm at the point where I just don't give a rat's ass."
Dingman is every bit the old-school rare-book dealer--an affable, first-rate character with an indifference to sartorial matters that is almost heroic. He still publishes a catalog and travels the circuit of regional book fairs--he worked 13 of them last year--and he has seen the effects of the Internet trickle down to the shows. "The crowds are still there, but the Internet has driven everybody to a sameness in price," he says. "The price of a book is now what the Internet says it is, and you just see the same books over and over."
Dingman figures that his books will only appreciate in value the longer he waits. And he bemoans the loss of professionalism that has come with the explosion of Internet book selling. Perusing the tens of thousands of listings and book descriptions on the Internet makes it apparent that there are surely more than a few "dealers" out there in cyberspace who are characters straight out of Deliverance central casting, selling books out of their garage and rolling them onto the Internet on thrift-store computers. Even so, Dingman remains willing, if not particularly eager, to, as he says, "join the circus--even if only for purposes of reference."
When you talk about the Internet, of course, you're talking about something that in its present form is in all likelihood no longer even in its present form, so quickly is everything changing. (Could this be a digital manifestation of Heraclitus's river?) By the time you read this, any and all of the Internet used-book players may have completely changed the way they do business, joined forces with one or more of their competitors, or disappeared completely. It's difficult to pin anyone down on the future of the business, or even its present status: Basic information like sales figures, revenues, or even page hits is harder to come by than American nuclear secrets. And good luck trying to speak to anyone behind these Web sites on the phone.
Whatever the future of used-book selling on the Internet might be, the present still belongs to the customers and the dealers. If you're a used-book seller you can bray all you want about the effect the Internet has had on the culture of used bookstores; about how it only increases the shit-job aspects of the business--like data entry and management, packing and shipping. You can note the sad irony that so many people who got into the business because they didn't want to spend their lives sitting on their ass staring at a computer screen are now spending their lives sitting on their asses staring at computer screens. You can bemoan the fact that on a lot of days you feel like nothing so much as a day trader, and you can resent the ugly cyber-mob mentality of the whole business--adapt, play ball with us, or get out.
But none of that can change the fact that the Internet sells books like gangbusters. It is, though, somehow encouraging that you can still occasionally get from a customer what I like to call a "pre-Internet response." Not long ago Rag and Bone loaned several boxes of old books that had been in storage to the Walker Art Center for a re-creation of a model Fifties home. A woman visiting from California saw an old Arnold Bennett title there, How to Live, that she had been seeking for many years, and obtained our phone number from the Walker. I'd never heard of the book--there are so many boxes in the basement--but said of course we'd be happy to sell it to her. She reiterated that she had been looking for the book forever, and was thrilled and incredulous to have finally found it. She said that she was more than willing to pay whatever it would take to get her hands on the book. I took down the title and her telephone number, and when the books came back from the Walker I shuffled through the cartons, found How to Live, and looked it up on the Advanced Book Exchange. There were at least a dozen copies of the book available, in the exact same edition, and none of them were selling for more than $20. The woman got her book at a bargain price, and a few weeks later we received a box of candy along with an effusive thank-you note.