Portland Booksellers' Website - A Great Idea Not Quite Fulfilled
By Michael Stillman
The Portland Area Used Booksellers Association (Portland, Oregon) two weeks ago announced the launching of a cooperative website for its members. According to PAUBA's President Debbie Cross, "Portlanders embrace the idea of buying locally, and our new search engine will allow them to search the online inventories of over three dozen local and regional bookstores." What is offered is a search engine that searches the listings of the Portland booksellers exclusively, assuring Portlanders that they are buying locally.
PAUBA cleverly devised a way to offer this service at minimal cost to its members. There is no PAUBA database, and only a barebones website. The website offers a search box and list of members, no more. The organization has kept its costs to a minimum by devising a program that searches the listings of two major listing sites - AbeBooks and Biblio. Member John Storhm wrote the program that searches the listings of PAUBA members only on these sites, and then presents them on a unified results page. A click on listings on the results page brings you to the listing on Abe or Biblio, where the customer can purchase the book through that site. No sales are made through PAUBA, only through Abe or Biblio.
I think PAUBA has an idea with interesting potential, but I strain to see much value in what they have so far. Essentially what you have here is a listing site that searches the inventory of 37 booksellers, instead of 13,000. It is not going to find a very large selection, or that often the best deal on the internet. Perhaps, as Ms. Cross says, "Portlanders embrace the idea of buying locally," but my guess is that most shoppers, particularly online, embrace the idea of buying for the lowest price, or at least securing the best price for items of comparable value. After all, being able to secure the best deal by buying from retailers anywhere in the country, perhaps the world, is the soul of internet shopping. Expecting people to accept less for the sake of buying anonymously from a local merchant seems a bit of a stretch.
What would, in my opinion, be a truly valuable service for Portlanders would be a site that not only enabled customers to buy online, but go to the local bookstore itself. Now I realize there are complications with this as many booksellers today do not have a local store, only an online presence. They might have to make adaptations or not be as well served by the local site. Additionally, such a site would require more investment in development and maintenance, and there is no guarantee it would end up justifying the costs.
Nonetheless, here is what I would like to see in a cooperative site by local used booksellers. Each listing should include information about the local bookseller, how to reach him/her, store location (if available), hours, those sorts of things that local buyers need. Such information is either not provided or obscure in listings from Abe or Biblio. There should be one of those Google maps that places the location of each seller on a Portland map. Those maps also enable customers to obtain directions from their home to the dealer's location. To me, the advantage to Portlanders of buying from a Portland bookstore is the ability to go there, view the books, and buy what they want on the spot. Using this site simply because it helps a local business, I fear, is a weak incentive today.
Why would people want to make their purchase locally instead of online? I see two major reasons. The more expensive the book, the more likely a customer is to want to see it, receive some type of personal guarantee it is as described. I need no reassurance to buy a $5 used book for reading from an anonymous seller. I am not buying a $5,000 book for collecting from an anonymous online seller.
The second case where I want to buy locally is when, to use the legal expression, time is of the essence. I need the book now. Many times I have had one of my children come home needing a copy of some classic for school. There may be a thousand used copies for as little as a dollar online, but the first chapter was assigned for reading tonight. It's off to Barnes & Noble and a $20 sparkling new copy. It may not be worth the effort for the local bookseller to offer an Abe competitive $1 copy, but would I visit a local used bookseller for a $10 used copy as opposed to driving to Barnes & Noble for a $20 new one? Do the math.
As noted previously, this may be complicated for the bookseller without a storefront. However, the chances are that seller is willing to offer home visits to people who want to inspect an expensive book. Perhaps they might also be willing to set aside a $10 book to hand over at the door to someone who sets a time to drop by. The point is that PAUBA's best shot at making sales to Portland customers is through the one thing they offer that the other 12,963 Abe booksellers cannot - local access. If they can tap that advantage, I believe the site could become very useful to Portlanders, buyers and sellers alike.