Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Number 2,499

Sometime during the night tonight we shall pass a milestone. Earlier today we shipped book #2,499 that had been ordered through one of the on-line services. If all goes well, we will receive an order for number two thousand, five hundred tonight.

When I stop and think about it, I come to the conclusion that it is really quite an accomplishment. We haven’t really been involved with that aspect of the business all that long; a little over two years, perhaps. And we really only got religion about it a year or so ago.

I saw “we”, but it really is my poor, long-suffering bride (hereinafter “PLSB”) who does all the work on this phase of the business, and to her go the accolades. She sifts through the inventory that comes into the shop and decides which books are to be fully catalogued and put on the Internet. Truly, she has a better feel for this than do I. And it is she who keeps the records straight, takes the orders, does the packing and makes the daily schlep to the post office.

PLSB is good at it and she enjoys it. And she has, with good reason, mandated that I pretty much stay away from it.

Well, that’s not quite accurate. In all fairness, I should say that she has actually mandated that I stay THE HELL away from it. A wise woman, my PLSB.

But I admit that I am of two minds about this business of selling books online.

On the one hand, of course, I am more than happy to cash the checks from Abe, Alibris, Biblio, Amazon, Barns & Noble, et. al. It is not quite “found” money. But it is certainly bonus money.

We maintain two distinct inventories. The larger is the one in the shop and it numbers upwards of 300,000 titles. The online inventory, now numbering around 3,000 titles, consists of the more esoteric titles and they generally are significantly more expensive. Whereas the average book in the shop will sell for between $3 and $4, the online average is in the $12 to $15 range (with more than a few listed for $75 to $100 or more).

So, yes, I am happy that my PSLB has developed this business and that she is shipping books to Australia, Russia, South America and throughout the United States (all this just within the past week, by the way).

The problem I have with online sales is really two-fold. First, I would kinda like to have some of these in the shop, even if they don’t sell. We keep some of the more rare books under lock-and-key here, and I think they’re probably safe. And they are certainly neat to look at. But that’s a lousy business decision. Still “neat” is rather high on my list of priorities. (“Eating regularly” ranks a little higher, which is why they’re online.)

The other is a more philosophic reason. Perhaps I am a bit of a Luddite in all this, but the purist in me would rather someone come into a book shop, any book shop even if it is not mine, to find reading material. There is something to be said for poking around the shelves of a used book shop in search of a treasure. There’s the aspect of working just a little bit to find what you seek…the thrill of the hunt and all that. There’s also the aspect of browsing and making the happy discovery of a title that you hadn’t known. Perhaps a little-known work by a favorite author or an obscure title on the topic of interest.

It is a romantic notion that I fear is rapidly going out of style.

Last night I committed an act that brought me square up against my misgivings by posting a direct link from our website to our online inventory:

One stop closer, I suppose, to the end of civilization as we know it.

So…here’s to Number 2,500! I hope it is something fun. And here’s to my PLSB! She is certainly something fun.

And here’s to my continuing to stay THE HELL away from the online business!

1 comment:

  1. I noticed this trend in the mid- to late-1990s. The bookstores I would visit locally and on out-of-town trips would hold back their best items for either online "research" (they don't know how to price it themselves) or listings. Hence, during my visits, the children's books I wanted to find for myself and our clients were unavailable and certainly not found on the shelves.

    Hence, we have been trained to look online as our collections mature and we seek the more elusive titles to "complete" a given collection. We have been trained by the actions of the very booksellers who would prefer we visit and browse their shelves.

    Another factor we saw was the growing realization that book collectors could sell their books themselves online. The early used book databases were still fairly exclusive initially to allowing only booksellers (shops or at home varieties) list books. However, with eBay rising in the 1990s there was suddenly an avenue for individuals to list their unwanted books and other items.

    Here, too, as a collector I have found several hundred items on eBay that I don't think I could have found with any amount of gas or time visiting bookstores.

    For out-of-town stores I would visit once a year or even less frequently, a large number of the books seemed familiar. A store which is not buying continually and turning over stock is one that is dead or dying and perhaps doesn't even know it yet. The collectors stop visiting as often because they don't see anything they need or want on successive visits. This denies them the chance for the serendipitous discovery of spotting something they didn't realize they needed or wanted.

    Clearly eBay listings need to be held aside during the length of the auction. However, eBay store and used book database (ABE, Alibris, etc) listings should be available to walk-in or phone clients. Perhaps the way to handle this is a separate area where they are identified as listed online. This will indicate to visitors that they are the better books and there is the potential for competition -- like a crowded bookstore or a book fair or a library sale -- and that they should act swiftly or lose the item to another.

    James Keeline