Will used bookshops become rare editions?

Heavy Traffic in online sales worries book browsers.

| March/April 2001

BOOKS

The Last Book
-D.T. Max

Confessions of a Bibliophile
-Bill Holm

Will Used Bookshops Become Rare Editions?
-Jay Walljasper

Discuss e-books in the Literature conference in Café Utne's: cafe.utne.com

The recent outpouring of concern about the fate of America's independent bookstores is well deserved, since these institutions perform an important public service by introducing us to new writers and exciting ideas as well as boosting the cultural life of communities across the country.

But there's one bright spot in the bookselling business that has been largely overlooked: the rise of used-book stores. Often featuring more titles than even the most cavernous superstore, these little shops nestled in city neighborhoods and near college campuses perform the equally important service of reintroducing us to older books, ranging from last year's best-sellers to ancient texts. They also offer generally lower prices (if you can resist the temptation of pricey first editions) and contribute to our cultural richness by getting us in touch with worthy but perhaps forgotten writers and ideas.

'Ninety-eight percent of all the books ever published are out of print,' writes Brad Zellar, co-owner of Minneapolis' estimable Rag & Bone Books, in the Twin Cities alternative weekly City Pages (Nov. 22, 2000). The out-of-print category includes 'great novels, obscure treatises on everything from dowsing to rainbows, books that have fallen out of fashion or were simply ahead of their time,' Zellar writes.

But more than just access to hard-to-find information, these stores offer book lovers the near-mystical experience of browsing,combing the shelves, inspecting the covers, opening a volume to read a page or two, discovering a title you've sought for years or, better yet, a splendid book you never knew existed. A lot of the pleasure in buying used books comes from these curious shops themselves, which invariably reflect the quirky personalities of the proprietors.

But just as giant chain retailers and online merchandisers forever altered the business of selling new novels and nonfiction, the used-book trade is now in the throes of a similar upheaval. '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,' Zellar writes, '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.'

The book you've wanted for years can now often be had,with just a few clicks at the ,keyboardfrom online book services like Advanced Book Exchange (www.abebooks.com), Powell's Books (www.powells.com), or Alibris (www.alibris.com). (Most used-book dealers will also be happy to do a book search for you.)

At first glance, this seems nothing but good for everyone. Collectors and avid readers can now get their hands on almost any imaginable volume, while book dealers can sell more books. And it's easier than ever to get into the business yourself. 'Anybody with a back room full of old science-fiction paperbacks can move product on the Web,' Zellar says. So what's the problem?

There's no problem at all if you're interested just in buying or selling particular books. But if some of the joy of used books for you comes in the hunt itself, then the future looks partly cloudy. There are more used-book stores than ever, and the boom in online sales may be contributing to their success. But some dealers,like one bookseller Zellar knows who ran a shop for 25 years but now is open only Saturday afternoons,now prefer to concentrate on Internet orders.

As a businessman, Zellar appreciates the income from online sales, although 'a lot of days you feel like nothing so much as a day trader.' But as an inveterate book browser, he's nervous. 'Many of my favorite places in the world are bookstores,' he writes: 'Vargo's in Bozeman, Montana; Plunkett and Hughes in Austin, Minnesota; Pleasant Street Books in Woodstock, Vermont; and the Dickson Street Bookshop in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Of those stores, only Pleasant Street and Dickson Street 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 the collection, the knowledge and character of the proprietor. If any of those stores were to disappear entirely to the furthest reaches of cyberspace, it would be the equivalent of reducing Paris to nothing but a splash of faded color on a map.'