By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
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 The twisted thrill of the scavenger hunt has been replaced by instant gratification, the indolent route to the grail.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.
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.
Many dealers could tell similar, if more modest, Internet success stories. Yet many would also agree that the experience raises serious questions about long-term independence and stability. Some dealers argue that the anonymous Internet free-for-all poses a potentially disastrous threat to the centuries-old customs and culture of used-book selling. In barely six years the Internet has brought more changes to the used- and rare-book business than it had seen in the previous several hundred years, and at this early stage of the relationship it's probably too soon to tell whether the World Wide Web is keeping stores alive or killing them off--or, worse, slowly killing them off even as it is keeping them alive.
David Dale ran his Bookdales as an open shop in the Twin Cities for more than 25 years, but in 1999, with his Internet business booming and store traffic down, he moved to a smaller space around the corner from his old location, cut his retail hours to Saturday afternoons and now spends most of his days jockeying books on and off the Net. He also lists books through ABE, but he devotes most of his time and energy to hawking stuff on eBay.
Dale figures he sends out 30 to 40 packages a week. "All things considered, I'd have to say the Internet has been a good thing," he says. "It certainly broadens the horizons. If you can just find the one guy who's looking for a book you've had around forever, well, that's a beautiful thing when you're sitting on tens of thousands of books."
Dale admits that ten years ago he never would have imagined that he'd end up sitting in his closed store selling his books on the Internet, but says that he continues to enjoy the work nonetheless. "The big thing is that this is still mine," he says. "I work for myself. I do it when I want, how I want, and if there are any rewards they're all mine."
Dale works alone (or with his wife Joyce) and, for him, the solitary nature of the job and the long hours remain a fair tradeoff for the independence. Of his fraternity he says, "I think at heart we're all immigrant Norwegian farmers following a plow up and down the fields." That may not sound like a life of brass bands and roses--nor of easy Internet millions--but Dale's point is this: It beats working for the Man.
The average used- or rare-book dealer lives surrounded by questions and answers, the accumulated wisdom and pitched afflatus of dead geniuses sharing shelf space with all manner of mid-list failures, hacks, crackpots, and blockbusters blown back to earth. A used bookstore is equal parts curiosity shop and museum of humility, the publishing industry's dead-letter office, posterity's pit stop or graveyard. Beyond the obvious and versatile question of Why--Why doesn't this book sell? Why was this one ever published?--is a broader, more philosophical question. Why has a given shop, and by extension its owner, been chosen by the universe as a vessel for these mysteries, and the site of their endless, ultimately fruitless investigation?
Book lovers and industry observers have rightfully bemoaned the demise of so many independent bookstores over the past decade, but such talk has too often failed to recognize that during that same decade used bookstores--most of them truly, fiercely independent operations--have continued to proliferate. There are more than 30 used bookstores currently operating in the Twin Cities, and on any given day virtually any one of them will be like a cross between the Library of Babel and Heraclitus's river. (Heraclitus was the guy who said that all things are in flux and thus you can't step in the same river twice, a statement that is truer of used bookstores than of anything else I can think of, because, to doctor the original a bit, for every book that goes out the door "other and yet other books are forever flowing in.").
According to some industry estimates approximately 98 percent of all the books ever published are out of print, and those volumes spend their long retirement circulating among the used bookstores of the world, changing hands dozens of times or simply gathering dust among the other books on the crowded shelves. Somewhere along the line all such books failed the test of a fickle marketplace, but many of them are glorious failures, great, neglected novels, obscure treatises on everything from dowsing to rainbows, books that have fallen out of fashion or were simply ahead of their time.
Used-book sellers are the custodians of such repositories, and every one puts his own stamp on his store. There are as many different types of used-book dealers as there are stores: You have pirates, procurers, polymaths; curators, collectors, connoisseurs. There are shops that are archaeological digs of vertigo-inducing disorder, crawling with cats or noisy with the racket of birds, and others as neat and quiet as any library, with displays and inventory worthy of a museum. There are gargantuan clearinghouses and modest paperback exchanges. But from the proprietors of the humble to the humongous, I'm prepared to swear to God on a $30,000 deluxe Barry Moser-illustrated PennyRoyal Press edition of the Bible (30 copies printed on Twinrocker paper, whatever the hell that is) that I've never met a used-book dealer who couldn't be making more money doing something else.
I'm also willing to argue all night that used bookstores are one of the great cultural barometers and democratic touchstones--not to mention cornerstones--of any big city. If you want an indication of a town's character and complexion, or if you want to take its cultural pulse, check out its used bookstores. And in the interest of full disclosure, I'll come right out and admit that I have a vested interest in the subject: I am the co-owner of a used bookstore--Rag and Bone Books--in Minneapolis, but every single thing I think and feel about used bookstores was true years before I succumbed to the treacherous temptation to open my own.
Back in those old days, if there was a network of used bookstores it was one of old associations, word of mouth, and professional friendships forged through rare-book shows around the country, mail-order catalogs, and trade publications like the AB Bookman's Weekly. Which is to say that "network" meant something entirely different. Many serious dealers specialized, cataloged their rare books and obscurities, built up mailing lists, and traveled the book-fair circuit. Many others simply signed a lease on a location (too often in some affordable but out-of-the-way cranny of the city), opened their doors, and waited for customers to find them as the books piled up.
Most small operations could seldom afford the luxury of any sort of advertising beyond the essential (but costly) yellow pages display ad. Back then even the most efficient and business-savvy used-book dealers were often helpless to find buyers for the thousands of out-of-print and obscure titles that crowded their shelves. What were the chances somebody was just going to walk in the door one day looking for that copy of Morton T. Kelly's exhaustive study of glossolalia, Tongue Speaking, or John Swain's grimly self-explanatory A History of Torture? So often used-book selling seemed like nothing so much as a painful form of matchmaking with the longest of odds.
In many used bookstores, the clerk who sells you a book is probably also the person who bought it, priced it, and put it on the shelves. Often as not a store's inventory is entirely in a dealer's head. The dealer must decide when a book has worn out its welcome, after which he might either mark it down or throw it out. When it comes to inventory, the used-book business is largely a one-of-a-kind world, with merchants having little or no control over the types of books they are offered for sale. Every day used-book sellers engage in the most delicate form of public relations; they must buy books directly from their customers, a tricky and potentially hazardous proposition that is freighted with the psychology of validation and rejection. They are generally at the mercy of whatever customers will bring them through the door, or, if they still have the time and inclination, whatever they manage to scare up in their rounds of the thrift stores and garage and estate sales.
Selling books professionally only provides a convenient excuse for buying more of them, and it's a rare used-book dealer (or rare rare-book dealer) who doesn't discover that the longer she's in business the more books she has: In its first two years Rag and Bone has probably doubled the size of its inventory. You can't sell more than you buy--it just does not happen. It's impossible. Probably a third to half of the stuff you actually pay for, you never sell. People--customers, the people who want to sell you books--often don't understand that part of the deal.
"I go home at night and when I come back in the morning the books just seem to have multiplied," a book dealer in Montana once told me, bemused by the sprawl in his cramped shop, which had reached a level of disorder that would frighten most reasonable people. As a general rule of thumb, most of the weird, academic, and out-of-print books that used-book dealers have coming out their ears are precisely not the sort of titles that the average, card-carrying neighborhood book-club member is looking for. And by the time the dealers do start seeing the books everyone is looking for, everyone is no longer looking for them.
By the time the average used bookstore has ten copies of Cold Mountain and is using it for a doorstop, the next customer who wants to sell it to him will be looking for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Blockbuster authors like John Grisham and Danielle Steele are the used-book-world versions of Eurasian milfoil. All those people who ever tried a diet that didn't work want a used-book dealer to partially reimburse them for their failure. Those three-year-old paperbacks you have sitting around that have "New York Times Bestseller" splashed across the front cover? It's a safe bet that your local used-book dealer probably doesn't want them. Ditto for those travel guides from your 1982 vacation to Mexico. For many years Reader's Digest apparently sent their Condensed Books to every elderly person in America, but most used-book dealers are reluctant to help those same elderly people--or their heirs--recoup that investment. And, finally: Harvey Mackay? No, thank you.
The truth of the matter is that most of the stuff used- and rare-book dealers have always considered their most interesting inventory is the sort of thing for which there is and will always be a limited and generally specialized market. Now factor in the odds that some buyer's-side representative of that "limited and generally specialized market"--what we in the business like to call a customer--is going to just walk into some used bookstore in the middle of Bumstuck and...well, thank God for the Internet, I guess.
The Internet discovered the used-book market about six years ago. Or the used-book market discovered the Internet. Used-book dealers all over the world had found a way to take the mountain to Mohammed. The World Wide Web seemed to be tailor-made for the original worldwide web of used bookstores--a realm of infinite cross-references, contradictions, and conspiracy theories.
When in 1994 a Seattle antiquarian bookseller by the name of Dr. Richard Weatherford launched Interloc, an electronic marketplace for used books, he revolutionized an industry--or launched an industry, to be more precise. The old-school price-guide annuals like Mandeville's and Huxford's became almost instantly obsolete, as Interloc made it possible for the first time for dealers to catalog and list their books in a head-to-head comparison with other dealers from all over the map. Many dealers reacted with initial trepidation and curiosity, but it didn't take long for even the most hidebound booksellers to embrace the new technology.
The initial system was creaky and not terribly efficient, but improvements came rapidly, as did competition. Advanced Book Exchange out of British Columbia was up and running in the spring of 1996, allowing dealers to list and maintain thousands of books, along with complete information on editions and condition. Using a search template on such sites, a customer could enter basic--or specific--information on a title (hardcover, paperback, first edition, signed, etc.) and receive a list of matches from participating dealers. Other similar sites joined the fray--including eBay (www.ebay.com), a more amusing and less dignified pig pile, yet one more tool to move books efficiently--and for a few years there was a dizzyingly competitive free-for-all as listing services both jockeyed for position and refined procedures. The Library of Babel had come to the Internet, and there was no denying that the initial effect on the lives and businesses of used-book dealers was simultaneously disruptive and almost overwhelmingly positive.
It didn't take long for that competition to become cutthroat. Corporate concerns like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com discovered the out-of-print book market, and the used-book listing services like ABE and its scrawnier fraternal twin Bibliofind scuffled to forge alliances and partnerships with the big players, with used bookstores increasingly playing the role of middleman or, worse, anonymous procurer. Barnes & Noble has working relationships with both Alibris and ABE, while Amazon.com acquired Bibliofind in May of 1999. Both Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com use those sites to buy books directly from dealers, mark them up, and sell them to their own customers. The whole mad scramble forced dealers into bed with the same sorts of giant corporations that were killing off independent competition all over the country.
In 1997 an astute and solidly credentialed guy named Martin Manley, a Harvard Business School graduate and former assistant secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, joined forces with Richard Weatherford at Interloc, and led a massive restructuring of the company, backed by a who's who of Internet venture capitalists. In November 1998 they reconfigured Interloc as Alibris (www.alibris.com), and, emboldened by an influx of cash that was unprecedented in the Internet used-book business, launched a full-scale assault on the Internet used-book market--or, as they prefer to call it, the hard-to-find-book market. Right out of the blocks Alibris sunk millions of dollars into a stylish advertising campaign, featuring dust jackets of mostly obscure pop-culture relics and utilizing the slogan, "Books you thought you'd never find." They opened a massive warehouse and distribution center in Sparks, Nevada, and aggressively targeted libraries, retailers, and consumers alike. They built partnerships with Barnes & Noble, and, more recently, with U.K. book retailer Gardner's and Canadian giant Chapters. Through their relationship with distribution powerhouse Ingram Book Group, one of their principal investors, Alibris has been able to integrate its inventory into Ingram's iPage ordering system, allowing most bookstores and libraries to order new and out-of-print titles using the same system.
Alibris's aggressive approach has alienated plenty of used-book dealers, many of whom are fiercely loyal to Advanced Book Exchange. ABE is a privately owned company with no venture-capital war chest and virtually no marketing presence, yet, according to spokesperson Lindsay Carlson, it has already shown a profit, with a system that is markedly different from that of Alibris. ABE charges dealers a sliding scale based on the number of books listed--ranging from $20 a month for less than 500 books to $100 for 30,000 books or more--and does not take any cut of the sale. Its function is strictly as a middleman: Its search engine puts a customer in direct contact with the dealer--via phone or e-mail--and the dealer is responsible for processing the transaction and shipping the book. While ABE does offer the customer the option of using a secure credit-card server to pay for the transaction at its site, most money changes hands directly from the customer to the dealer.
In the Alibris model--where Alibris gets a cut at both ends of the transaction, through dealer discounts on the one end and customer mark-up on the other--the dealer becomes a middleman himself. Alibris has access to a dealer's inventory, orders the books directly, and funnels all orders through the company's Nevada warehouse, where they are inspected and repackaged for the customer. All money is processed by Alibris. The customer enjoys the primary advantage of the Alibris system, if he can stomach the mark-up. In effect he can order books from a number of different sources, pay for them through one server, and receive one shipment. It's easy enough to see how such a system would be more efficient for libraries or other institutional buyers, but many dealers feel that Alibris reaps most of the benefits of such an arrangement by distancing them from the transaction and slapping the Alibris brand on the products of the anonymous dealer's expertise and hard work. For the thousands of dealers who have chosen to participate in the Alibris program, the logic is simple: A sale is a sale, and moving books through Alibris is really not a whole lot different from the old system in which dealers sold large numbers of books to fellow dealers who already had a customer lined up--as with Alibris, Amazon.com, or Barnes & Noble--and in the process extended a courtesy discount, much like the 20 percent that Alibris takes.
James and Mary Laurie have been in the business for 28 years, and they currently operate an eponymously named store on the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. They sell books through both Alibris and ABE. "We love having a shop," James Laurie says, "but we couldn't be here without the Internet. Alibris is annoying, but they're part of the reality of doing business today. It wouldn't be practical to pull our books off their site."
Mary Laurie, who handles much of the store's Internet traffic, agrees with her husband. "My preference is certainly ABE, mainly because I get to deal with the customer. Alibris not only takes a cut, but it also shields you from the buyer. And even on the Internet that direct relationship can be gratifying. You get a feel for who you're dealing with, and can exchange information with people all over the world. It's nice to make a sale, but building those relationships with customers is one of the really satisfying aspects of the job. It's bittersweet in some ways, but you have to recognize the tradeoff and the reality: We're selling books we couldn't sell before....The Alibris system is not very satisfying in many ways, but I do like the checks."
In its drive to build its brand and increase its market share, Alibris has engendered a fair share of panic and even paranoia in the once-fragmented used-book world. Because while most dealers agree that Advanced Book Exchange is winning the battle--with more than 6,800 dealers enrolled, and more than 23 million books listed, they are outpacing Alibris at the moment--many fear that Alibris is financially positioned to win the war. In the last year they have become even more aggressive, and according to the New York Times have now raised more than $60 million. According to the technology business journal Red Herring, "The company expects revenues between $20 [million] and $30 million this year," but Manley "declines to specify when [Alibris] expects to be profitable." Industry buzz is that the company has its eye on Wall Street and an IPO, and also, in all likelihood, the acquisition of Advanced Book Exchange.
A brief cruise through the Alibris Web site provides ample evidence of the company's broad ambition. Along with the impressive roster of high-profile investors and biographies of the members of its board of directors (including Michael Keller, chief librarian at Stanford University), there is an archive of newspaper and magazine articles detailing the company's assault on market share. There are references to a "dealer relations team," a "fulfillment staff," and "fill rate" statistics--precisely the sort of patter that might get you tossed out of many used bookstores. And somewhere on the Alibris site, there is this quote from Martin Manley: "We will invest more in marketing hard-to-find books than anyone in bookselling history."
To further flame dealers' paranoia, in the last year Alibris has purchased the entire inventory of several independent stores of long standing in the used-book community--shops in St. Louis, Seattle, and Berkeley--and boxed up the books and shipped them off to the warehouse in Nevada. In touting the acquisitions of Bowie & Co. (the Seattle store) and the Berkeley Book Company, Alibris announced that it was adding Taylor Bowie and Jay Miller--former proprietors of those establishments--to its "buying and referral team."
For his part, Manley is a polished and enthusiastic advocate of his company. Talking on the phone from the company's San Francisco offices, Manley extols Alibris's combination of "serious management, serious technology, and serious, demanding investors." He talks about their "industrial-strength supply feed," and says things like "Our value is aggregating lots of supply from around the world." He refers to something that sounds like the "gating factory," and boasts, "We have people cataloging 500 books a day under laboratory conditions." Manley spools out facts, figures, and e-business lingo at breakneck speed, and his ambition for his company is apparent in virtually everything he says. As he ticks off Alibris's distinctive features and advantages, it is difficult to keep up with him.
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.
Which does make you wonder: For all its appropriations of real-world language, can you really search for anything on a computer? Or, for that matter, can you ever actually claim that you've found a book on the Internet, if you can't see the book with your own eyes and hold it in your hands? Even while I copy ABE sales figures into the store's ledger, I will maintain that the Internet can never duplicate that experience, or capture the atmosphere of a used bookstore. Compared with the actual experience of shopping, and truly browsing, an Internet search engine is more like a card catalog system--little more than data. Amazing, exciting data, perhaps, but data nonetheless. It's not even a thing until it's in your hands and you've opened its binding and turned the first page. Only then does it properly become a book.