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Twice-Sold Tales
Used-Book Business Gets a Brisk, if Fragile, New Life Via Internet

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."

On Dec. 1, Publishers Weekly posed what could be construed as a hopeful question: "As Bad As It Gets?"

Not likely. After the holidays, most observers believe, things will only get worse.

All of which makes Wonder Book's recent sales volume stand out.

On the first Monday in December, the company filled 2,740 orders, breaking its single-day shipping record. (A year before, that number was 1,171.) More such days would follow, pushing the all-time high to 3,134. Now, four days after that initial record-breaker, Roberts is striding down a warehouse aisle, trying to explain how this million-book Internet thing works.

He's an energetic man of 54 who likes to keep moving. It's hard for a book lover to keep up, because distractions are everywhere.

Look, here's a timely title: Juliet Schor's "The Overspent American." Here are Ann Beattie's "What Was Mine" and Barbara Ehrenreich's "Fear of Falling." And wait, here's a book by short story maestro Raymond Carver that you've somehow never seen.

It's called "No Heroics, Please," and you want to buy it right now. But the warehouse isn't set up to deal with buyers in person. You could schlep over to one of Roberts's two brick-and-mortar stores, in Frederick and Hagerstown, but they carry far fewer titles and you might not find a copy there.

Time to go online.

You click onto one of the major sites on which Wonder and thousands of other dealers, large and small, list used books: Alibris, say, or Amazon or AbeBooks. Alibris has a few dozen copies of "No Heroics, Please," starting at $1.99. Wonder's copy, at $2.10, is third from the top -- but the first two sellers are in Minnesota and Massachusetts, so you pay the extra pennies, hoping to get your Carver fix faster.

The next morning, one of Wonder's 30 or so warehouse employees will print out a fat stack of orders, yours among them. Above the printer hangs a June New Yorker cover showing a UPS guy delivering an Amazon box to a woman who lives right next to a bookstore.

Just another sign of the times.

Using the number assigned to Carver's book when it arrived at the warehouse, someone will pull it from the shelf. By day's end, the harried-looking shippers along the back wall will have it in the mail -- and there will be a couple of thousand books' worth of warehouse room for Roberts to refill.

Not a problem.

Wonder gets a lot of books from people who bring them to its stores to sell. (It's a big reason to keep those stores alive.) Roberts and his colleagues also make "house calls" to bid on personal collections. They buy batches of "hurts" -- new books, sometimes damaged but mostly not, that bookstores have returned to publishers. Sometimes they scarf up whole inventories from deceased bookstores.

Then comes Roberts's favorite part of the job.

Dressed in a sweat shirt, sweat pants and funky shoes, he'll stand for hours at a sorting table in the middle of the warehouse. That's where he and a longtime employee, Ernest Barrack, determine the fate of the books in the "raw boxes" that come in every day.

"It's like book mining. You never know what you're going to get," Roberts says.

Decisions must be split-second. By way of demonstration, he pulls a copy of a health book called "The Iron Time Bomb" from a raw box and immediately whips it onto a nearby cart. "Looks like it would be a good Internet book," he says. Other possible categories include: stock for the retail stores; books to be shipped overseas in bulk; collectibles whose pricing requires extra research; and something Roberts calls "interior decorator."

Huh?

Perhaps this is a good time to note that Roberts will buy just about any collection of books if the price is right -- and that he really, really hates throwing them out. Even if that means selling to clients who care only about their covers.

"These are books by the foot," he says, pointing out stashes pre-sorted by color: red, green, yellow, white, black. On the floor not far from the sorting table sit stacks of expensive-looking art books destined for a mansion in Beverly Hills, Calif. Nearby, a huge carton of earth-tone books is being assembled for a decorator who specified "anything from off white to dark chocolate."

Dick Francis, Frank McCourt, Anne Rice, Garrison Keillor -- no author overrepresented on the book sites is immune. Most dealers would pulp these books, Roberts says. "Selling them by the foot, we give them another chance at life."

No decorators want mass-market paperbacks -- but Roberts won't throw them out either.

"We sold a whole bunch of these to Brazil not long ago," he says, gesturing toward a carton brimming with the likes of John Jakes and James Michener. The price: maybe 10 cents a book. The wholesaler who bought them, Roberts assumes, is supplying street vendors.

Are we talking obsessive book lover with clutter issues here? Or savvy businessman with a counterintuitive, buy-everything/sell-everything strategy?

Whatever the explanation, it produces interesting side effects. There are 16 bookcases in the warehouse men's room, crammed with books for sale by the foot.

The Online Revolution

The Wild West came to Wonder Book in November 1997, in the unlikely form of a book called "History and Development of Holstein Cattle in Frederick County, Maryland 1922-1964." It was the first book Wonder sold online, and it went for something like $45, if Roberts's sometimes hazy memory can be trusted, to a customer in Hereford, England.

Frederick dairy cattle!

England!

His brother in San Francisco had been telling him he should be online, Roberts says, and a young Wonder employee named Clark Kline had been bugging him about it, too. So they'd tried listing a few titles through AbeBooks and got what Roberts calls "a wake-up call."

They put more books online. The books kept selling.

"And then all of a sudden the retail sales were going like this and the online sales were going like this," Roberts says, graphing the downward and upward trends with his arms. "So we put more resources into what we saw was going to be the future of bookselling."

They weren't the only ones.

Powell's Books, the innovative Portland, Ore., store that sells both new and used titles, started experimenting online in 1994. In 1998, says director of marketing and development Dave Weich, Web sales represented less than 1 1/2 percent of Powell's corporate revenue. By 2001, that number was 30 percent.

As more buyers and sellers discovered the Web, the kind of used books being sold -- mostly collectibles at first -- broadened to include just about everything. "Gradually is not the right word," says Alibris founder Richard Weatherford, describing this shift. "It became a flood, very quickly."

Amazon started selling used books in 2000, infuriating publishers, who hated the fact that the online behemoth listed new and used copies together. But for companies like Wonder, listing with Amazon meant reaching vastly more potential customers.

"The equation was to go bigger," Roberts says. So he did.

In 1997, Wonder Book had no warehouse. In 2002, after outgrowing a couple of warehouse locations, Roberts found himself on Frederick's Monocacy Boulevard, checking out something like 180,000 square feet of empty space. "You could look down and see forever," he says.

He couldn't afford it all, but he signed a lease for 54,000 square feet. No one believed (bets were made, Kline says) that he could fill it as fast as he did.

Six years later, the euphoria has faded some.

Wonder is privately held, and Roberts won't disclose annual sales figures, for competitive reasons. But he notes that, while Wonder's gross from Internet sales has more than doubled since 2005, prices have dropped sharply at the same time.

"The competition's everywhere," he says. It's everything from people selling out of their basements and garages to big operators, even more factory-like than Wonder, who sell books for pennies and squeeze most of their profits out of the shipping and handling charges.

"All of a sudden we're going: 'What's happening?' The graph is going like this." His arm forms a negative slope again.

This is where those constant rethinkings come in.

To stay profitable, Wonder has converted to bulk mailing, found lighter packing material and re-engineered work stations. More importantly, Roberts has invested heavily in better, faster software, using the beefed-up computing power to adjust prices whenever competitors start eating too much into sales.

One result: fewer judgments to make at the sorting table. Many books now go straight to data-entry stations, where a quick scan of their International Standard Book Numbers will reveal whether there are too many copies online already, at too low a price, to make dealing with them worthwhile.

Kline, a soft-spoken man in his mid-30s who could pass for a grad student in philosophy, is Wonder's software guru. "He knows computers like you or I can drive a car," says Roberts. It's Kline's job to tweak prices as Wonder's revenues rise and fall, managing an automated decision-making process he says involves 25 or 30 steps.

It's a long way from one guy building shelves and pricing books on his own. And the psychological adjustment in how Wonder has to see its business -- moving from book-think to widget-think, essentially -- hasn't been easy.

"It's looking at them as pieces of data," Kline says, "as opposed to saying okay, this is a book."

"I mean, we're selling them for as low as 50 cents now, which a few years ago I never would have dreamed," Roberts says. "It's pure supply and demand."

The Decline of the Book

Well, most of the time. It's hard to argue that the 120,000 Russian books Roberts acquired a couple of years ago represent a supply-and-demand calculation.

The short version of an epic tale: Viktor Kamkin Inc., a Russian bookstore in Rockville, went out of business in dramatic fashion that involved eviction and books being shoveled into dumpsters with a front-end loader. Someone eventually got in touch with Roberts, who agreed to haul away what was left.

He paid almost nothing -- but no price is low enough for books you can't sell. Most now sit in rented trailers in the warehouse parking lot. When Roberts sought advice from antiquarian booksellers, he says, "one of the guys e-mailed back and said: 'Pour gas on them, light a match, run.' "

He won't do it. "I'm thinking we'll find the right Russian someday," he says hopefully.

But the reality is that Wonder Book, like the rest of the book business, faces far tougher questions than how to dispose of a few trailers filled with Cyrillic texts.

There's the supply question:

Amazon's Kindle, the Sony Reader and applications created for cellphones seem likely to push early adopters away from physical books at increasing rates. Publishers have been scrambling to prepare for the brave new world of e-books, and a 54,000-square-foot warehouse, needless to say, won't count as a major asset in that world.

There's the demand question:

Talk to enough publishers and booksellers and you'll find that their No. 1 long-term worry is the increasing competition for their customers' time and attention.

"I think brains are getting rewired," says Kline, who admits to reading less himself. In an online, instant-gratification world, "watching a movie or reading a book is an event now" and not, as it once was, "the basic form of entertainment."

The good news? There are still plenty of books and buyers out there, and used books offer attractive value in a recession.

"We tend to do okay during tough times," Roberts says. Besides, "I can't see reading off a Kindle in the bathtub or at the beach."

Is he still optimistic, then, about the business that's filled his warehouse -- the business he's spent a lifetime building?

"Oh, in the near future, yeah," Roberts says.

"Ten years at least."

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