Building Trust online:
The Antiquariaat Forum
Who could fail to be impressed by the library of the Antiquariaat Forum?
By Michael Stillman
The internet has done wondrous things for book collectors. It has opened the inventory of thousands of booksellers from all over the world to the collector living in Anywhere. There was a time when, if the rare book you wanted was offered by a dealer in North Dakota, South Korea, or Outer Mongolia, there was little chance you would ever know. If it was offered by all three, there was no hope you could see them all and compare.
The internet changed all that. Abebooks alone claims 12,000 bookseller members, plus over 50 million books for sale. No one knows, or at least I don't, how many other dealers and books are available on the web. The choices available would have been virtually unimaginable just a dozen years ago. We will never go back.
So, has anything been lost? Of course. When the supermarket replaced the neighborhood grocer, you had to learn to serve yourself. When Wal-Mart replaced the local department store, the personal relationship you had with the owner was replaced by a "hello" and a smiley-face sticker from a minimum-wage greeter who doesn't know which aisle holds whatever it is you want. But, Wal-Mart has 500 times as many items as the local store and they charge 40% less. You will never go back.
We can bring this even closer to home. Chains have driven many bookstores, particularly those specializing in new books, out of business. Barnes and Noble, Borders and the like now dominate that business. A few independents have managed to achieve sufficient size to compete (see the article on Powell's in this issue), but they are the exception. Others survive by being in towns and places too small for the big boys to care.
However, the internet is the great equalizer. Mom and Pop may not be able to make it on Main Street anymore, but on the internet, everyone can look the same. The buyer cannot tell whether you own a 50,000 square foot warehouse full of books, or a closet in your bedroom. Now you may not be able to compete when it comes new books. Amazon undoubtedly has greater pricing power with the publishers than you have. But, when it comes to old books, for which copies are few and dependable suppliers nonexistent, you can still compete.
However, there is still one small issue. The buyer doesn't know you from Adam. He or she knows nothing of your honesty, integrity, legitimacy, or anything else. For a $5 book, this may be okay. For $500, it may not. Guaranties are helpful, but won't guarantee anything if you go out of business or are deliberately uncooperative. How can you reassure that potential buyer?
Building Trust online:
The Antiquariaat Forum
Books line the shelves, while buttons at the bottom allow you to direct your tour.
Some booksellers are reassuring buyers through the quality of their websites. We have seen this strategy employed particularly well by European dealers, but it is by no means limited to them. For our example, we will look at the Antiquariaat Forum from just outside of Utrecht, The Netherlands. The Antiquariaat Forum has a website that exudes class and knowledge, the kind that reassures you that this is a solid, reliable company with which to do business. Listings are provided with descriptions worthy of their prices. Some include images. It is hard not to believe that this is a very reputable bookseller.
However, Antiquariaat Forum has gone one step further. You still can't be sure this is not a beautiful site maintained by someone with a few shelves of books in the attic. So, they show you their store. It is magnificent. We're not just talking about a couple of photographs here. No, they have a virtual tour. You can virtually walk into their store (it really looks more like a library), and look around, up, down, all over. You can sit back and let their eyes circle you around the room, or move your "eyes" in whichever direction you choose. You can even zoom in and out to check the books on a particular shelf. Tours are provided for four separate areas of their location to make sure you don't miss a thing. If you had any doubts as to the substance of the Antiquariaat Forum coming in, you will not have any doubts when you leave.
This type of site may not be for everyone. If your typical sale is a 15-year-old used book for $10, this type of presentation would look ridiculous. However, if you are looking to sell reasonably expensive books to total strangers, it is worth looking at your internet presence to see if it inspires sufficient confidence to send off a significant sum of money to someone you don't know. To whatever extent it is possible to do this, Antiquariaat Forum has done about as well as you can.
As a final note, building a website can be expensive. It can also be not so expensive (it's a lot like buying old books!). A professional web-designing firm will probably ask a lot. Someone has to pay for that beautiful office they have, and their expensive dinners after work. If you use them, you want to see if you can get fill-in time. Alternatively, you might want to look for a college student, or the computer design department of a college. These people tend to work cheaply. If you have a 15 to 20-year-old son, you are particularly lucky. He can do this, even though he can't mow the lawn. When you go to one of the book sites, you may find the identical book offered for $10 and $100. You want to buy the $10 copy. The same logic applies to buying web services.
Now, to visit the Antiquariaat Forum and virtually tour their library, here's the link: www.forumrarebooks.com. Just click on the "Virtual Tour" on the home page. A note of caution: the tour may not work with older versions of software. For Windows users, it will probably require Windows 2000 or better. For Apple users, you may need the latest version, OS10.3.
Nat Des Marais of the Heritage Book Shop in Los Angeles has brought to our attention that they have been using a virtual tour on their site for 2 1/2 years. Indeed they have. To check out their tour, go to www.heritagebookshop.com and look for their virtual tour under "About Us."