Wonder Book and Video: Fast-Growing Reseller Navigates the Changing World of Online Commerce

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 29, 2008

"That's about a million books on those shelves," Chuck Roberts says proudly.

The owner of Wonder Book and Video is standing in a 54,000-square-foot warehouse in Frederick, waving an arm toward what looks like a combination of the world's biggest bookstore and a grungy aircraft hangar.

Eight-foot metal and wooden shelves, housing the used books Roberts sells on the Internet, stretch as far as a dust-filled eye can see. Taller, Costco-scale units hold massive, book-filled boxes not yet unpacked. More such boxes, in jumbled heaps, spill into the floor space that remains.

In 1980, when Roberts opened his first used bookstore, he built his own shelves.

"I was my only employee," he recalls. "So I'd be back there with an apron on, sawing, hammering nails -- they didn't even have screw guns back then -- and when the front door would open, I'd take the apron off and go wait on the customer."

How did he get from there to here? The Wonder Book story offers the standard plot elements of successful entrepreneurial sagas: hard work, risk-taking, technical innovation, good luck.

But it's part of a much larger narrative as well. Because the story of how Chuck Roberts came to fill up those 54,000 square feet of warehouse space is also the story of how swiftly the once-sleepy business of selling used books has been remade over the past decade.

To Roberts, "the Web book business is literally the Wild West." And if you can't beat your competition to the draw -- by rethinking the way you operate "every six months" -- you're dead.

* * *

The specter of commercial death has been haunting the whole book business lately. It wasn't exactly the best of times for publishers and booksellers before the economy melted down. Afterward, the headlines got truly grim:

There was "Barnes & Noble Braces for 'Terrible' Season" and "Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Places 'Temporary' Halt on Acquisitions." (Translation: Publisher with scary debt issues can't afford to pay authors for books.) Then came "Layoffs at Random House, Simon & Schuster," followed quickly by "Publishing Death Watch."

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