AE Monthly

Articles - October - 2004 Issue

Building Trust online:<br>The Antiquariaat Forum

Room

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?

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