Old books in a new paradigm


In the vibrant neighborhoods surrounding Chicago Avenue and 48th Street, it’s easy to forget about home-based businesses. Many are so home-based that there’s no sign in the window, no trucks pull up to the door, no clients park on the tree-lined block. One extremely private way to run a home-based business is to become a web-based, mail-order retailer. A quiet explosion of such businesses has completely transformed the world of book sales, especially antiquarian, used and collectible books.
You may have used the web to search for books by title and author. Almost certainly, your first hit will be the online behemoth, Amazon.com. Even if you prefer to patronize local sellers, you may hit Amazon and discover your local seller is using Amazon “Marketplace” or is an “Amazon Associate.” But if you page down through those results, there are a few would-be competitors to Amazon who deserve our support. One such platform is Biblio.com. Within its portfolio of sellers, there’s one called Twin City Antiquarian Books, located on Columbus Avenue south of 46th Street.
Before the worldwide web was a part of life, interest in used books was labor intensive, both for sellers and consumers. In those times, a brick-and-mortar option was almost the only way to sell used books, and the tiny mail-order segment had to use the snail-mail postal service from end to end. If you had a home-based bookshop back then, you had to create a paper catalogue, and mail it to buyers, who found you through ads in magazines or on bulletin boards or by “word of mouth.” Buyers would mail you a check, you would wait for it to clear, then mail their goods. There was no such thing, nor even a thought that there ever would be such a thing, as typing out a few keywords and instantly receiving a list of scores or more of sources for a book, some in foreign countries where you will never go, some maybe just down the block. For people of my generation, things like this are an astonishing, ongoing miracle.
On the consumer side, in place of the Google search for a book, people would send postcards to bookstore proprietors they knew, with only a sliver of a chance that they would have that book. Booksellers across the world formed ad-hoc networks, and would call or mail one another constantly on behalf of their own customers. It didn’t work that well by today’s standards, but it was all we had.
On the flip side, there was the ineffable pleasure of going to a used bookstore and just browsing, making serendipitous purchases. This was an education in itself.
Moving to the Twin Cities in 1984, I was delighted to find many good used bookstores here. But in about 15 years came “the big change.” Online there are now many bookstores, but most are associated with something larger, to enable searching. On the corporate side, besides Amazon, there is Powells.com, related to the iconic Portland, Ore., bookstore chain. On the almost anti-corporate side, there is Biblio.com and similar, such as Alibris.com, or highly specialized networks for certain genres.
I interviewed the owner of Twin City Antiquarian Books when he came by to hand-deliver a purchase (a 1942 U.S. Army Field Manual). Having been around the block a few times myself on this used book thing, although I would not go so far as to say “antiquarian” for most of my books, I had burning questions to ask him. How does the software work? Why Biblio? Where does your stock come from? Are you a collector yourself and if so, how do you keep them separate? Can someone really make a living from this? He—Mark Digre—answered most of my questions plus a lot I didn’t think to ask.
Mark is a collector, and he keeps his inventory for sale strictly separated from his personal library. His inventory was built up over years, as he learned how to purchase books from estate sales and libraries in his time at a used book store. With his home being a standard South Minneapolis bungalow with a full basement, he is not currently purchasing: Half of his basement is filled with 9,000 processed and pending books. About half of these books are listed in the virtual catalogue and for sale on the Biblio-hosted website at https://www.biblio.com/bookstore/twin-city-antiquarian-books-minneapolis, many with photos. Of the other half, some are just awaiting processing to get on the site, while some are not cost-effective to sell online. Considering the time it takes to catalogue a book, the time and cost of shipping, and the likelihood or not of a title being sought and bought, there is a price point at which it’s not worth it to the business. Such books can be disposed of in other ways—at book fairs or garage sales, or by trading in to a used bookstore if they have some intrinsic value. Of course, bookstores of all kinds have some less “desirable” stuff—that’s why we have sidewalk dollar shelves, one of my favorite bits of the used book trade.
Twin City Antiquarian Books carries a broad array of titles, but they do also specialize—in mathematics, science and technical manuals. But thanks to Mark’s expertise in IT principles and a statistician’s orderly approach, it has a great subject index search facility, including diverse categories such as Norway and Norwegians, Iowa, Poetry, Investing and Journalism. Just a quick 10-minute surf through some random categories brings up astonishing finds. It’s rare that you can get an online experience so close to that of browsing in a “real” bookstore.
Mark is retired from years working in the IT field and as a statistician, so his business is not a total livelihood, but a supplement. Although I don’t have the data, I suspect that that’s the case with a majority of strictly online used book sellers. But then a lot of the online bookstores are the online branch of a real world used book store. For instance, on Biblio, there are 48 towns that have bookstores listed and 17 bookstores listed just in Minneapolis. Five—Eat My Words, James and Mary Laurie, Magers & Quinn, Moon Palace and The Book House—are extensions of a brick-and-mortar store. If you’re a book lover looking for alternatives to Amazon, you should definitely check out Biblio and Mark’s excellent store.

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