Internet opens new chapter for bookstores

Shop owners weigh
the pros and cons
of marketing online.
Monday, August 25, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:35 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Dairy Queen cup has been the cash register at Adams Walls of Books for 10 years. This month, a laptop joined the used-book business that has been around since the ’40s.

“Ah, for Pete’s sake,” Nancy Duncan, owner of the store, said while trying to get the laptop going.

Her brother David would have liked a new door, but Duncan, 56, said she wants to maintain the store’s character. This is the store’s first computer, and Duncan said she estimates it could have bought four new doors. It won’t be used for recording sales, just for reference.

“We’re pen and pencil and the Dairy Queen cup,” Duncan said.

Adams Walls of Books, 214 N. Eighth St., is one of three major sellers of used books in Columbia that are trying to keep up with technology. The market for used books has not escaped the wide spread of Internet commerce, and sellers are aware of it.

“It’s weird when you have books 300 years old and the Internet, but it’s an ideal match,” said Annette Kolling-Buckley, owner of Columbia Books at

22 S. Ninth St.

Kolling-Buckley, 51, has been selling books online since 1992. Now, 50 percent of her business is done through the Internet.

“We have an average of 20 orders every day,” Kolling-Buckley said.

Online book purchasing was responsible for 10 percent of used-book sales in the United States between April and December 2002, according to research by Ipsos BookTrends, a division of the Ipsos-Insight marketing company. Store sales still represent 88 percent of the used-book market nationwide, the research found.

The trend is growing, and Kolling-Buckley’s business proves it. She said her Internet sales have grown from

30 percent to 50 percent in the last couple of years.

“Businesses that just rely on walk-in find it hard to grow,” Kolling-Buckley said.

Columbia Books receives between 6,000 and 7,000 online orders every year that are shipped across the world, from Kathmandu to Japan.

“Selling books online gives booksellers access to an active global marketplace,” said Anirvan Chatterjee, founder and chief executive officer of, a service that allows customers to buy books from 50,000 bookstores around the world.

“Expanding your customer base is a pretty obvious win in these tough economic times, particularly for booksellers in smaller communities,” Chatterjee said.

Columbia’s three used-book stores each carry about 60,000 books.

“Three large used bookstores is not an unusual number for a college town,” said Ken Green, co-owner of Acorn Books, 211 S. Ninth St.

Green, 61, said his business has been growing every year since it opened in 1986. Besides the downtown store, Acorn Books also opened two self-serve stores in local antique malls, one in 1996 and another in 2002. Someday Acorn Books will expand its business to the Internet, Green said.

“It’s a time-consuming operation, and I’m in no hurry,” he said.

Duncan, also a kindergarten teacher, said she can keep Adams Walls of Books open only three hours a week, from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays.

Still, she said she has no immediate plans to get her business online.

“I will someday, but I’m not actively working on it, and I don’t have a deadline,” she said.

The toughest challenge used-booksellers face when they move to the Internet is building a strong database of their books.

“Booksellers need to be very organized so that books are added to the online inventory as soon as they’re acquired and removed as they’re sold,” Chatterjee said. “It’s all about coming up with a system and sticking to it.”

Kolling-Buckley, who holds a degree in library science from MU, began cataloging her books in 1989.

Accuracy is important when cataloguing old books, she said.

Green does not catalogue his books. He said he puts them into different categories, many of which are alphabetized.

“We have everything from math to children’s books to poetry to history to cookbooks,” he said.

Most of Green’s customers know what they are looking for.

“They enjoy the search,” he said.

When buying used books online, a customer relies solely on the accuracy of the description. The secret to selling a book on the Internet is to give an honest assessment of it, Duncan said.

“If I’m going to put my name on it, I want to be the person that does the evaluation,” she said.

Kolling-Buckley markets her books on eight sites and will get her own Web site in the near future. She said the Internet gives booksellers as much as they put into it.

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