February 23, 1999
by Dan Silver
During the past few years I have had fun hunting for rare book bargains on the web. If, like me, you can't walk past a used bookstore without at least looking in the window, and if you have access to the web, then you too might enjoy the paradoxical experience of searching for ancient books with the aid of a silicon chip.
First, forget Amazon.com. It is true that they will find out-of-print books for you. However, their price will be high compared to the sources that I am about to discuss. Go ahead and purchase new books from them. You can get great prices on popular titles. Just don't ask them to sell you a first edition of Tom Sawyer.
Much of my experience has been with Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) located at http://www.abebooks.com. As with any of the sites I will describe, no fee is required. You can search by title or by author. You can even search by subject or key words. By clicking on appropriate boxes at the bottom of the screen, you can narrow your search to first editions or signed copies. (Beware that "signed copy" can also mean a book with the owner's name scrawled across the title page.) Once you have typed in the information, ABE will display matches offered for sale by dealers around the world. The condition of each book is carefully described, and the price is displayed. Here is comparison shopping of the highest degree. It is not uncommon for copies of the same book in similar condition to be offered by different dealers at greatly different prices.
If you have not purchased old books before, then become familiar with the terms that are used to describe them. An extensive glossary can be found at the ABE site. There you will find definitions of terms such as foxed, half leather and paste-down. The dealers who sell books on ABE are required to describe their conditions accurately, and they do.
Once you have located an item that you want, ABE enables you to send a purchase request through them. I am not crazy about this method of sale, for two reasons. First, many antiquarian bookdealers do not read e-mail on a regular basis. I know that this sounds strange. After all, aren't they using the web to sell their books? Yes, but many are doing it reluctantly. Also, they have bookstores to run. Second, I remain unwilling to send credit card numbers via the internet. In time, technology will fade both of my objections.
Fortunately, ABE offers another way to buy an item. By clicking on the sentence "Please contact ... for more information about purchasing this book" you can find the phone number of the dealer. Although it costs a bit, I prefer to call the dealer. That way I can establish that the book really is available and ask any lingering questions about its condition. A surprising number of small dealers cannot accept credit cards. It is reassuring to hear someone actually say, “We will hold the book for you until your check arrives.''
Shipping charges for books listed with ABE vary from dealer to dealer. They usually range from $3 to $5 for the first book. Additional books are often shipped at $1 each. The dealers know how to ship. Your book will arrive in a tightly bound, exotic bundle. Make sure that whoever picks up your mail knows about your purchase. Otherwise you might find your package soaking in a bucket of water awaiting a bomb squad.
Most dealers want you to be happy with what you buy, and so they offer you the right to return items. However, be sure to check this in advance. Some offer to take a book back only if the condition is different from that advertised.
Another site that I have used is Alibris, located at http://www.alibris.com. They are new, and their staff is very responsive. At Alibris you can check to see what items have been listed during the past 24 hours, or 7 days. That might sound silly, but it is not. Bargains disappear fast. Another advantage that Alibris offers over ABE is that any book can be returned within 30 days with no questions asked. (I have not tried to return anything, but that is their claim.)
Alibris has two serious disadvantages over ABE. The first is that their prices are relatively high. If you find something that you want on Alibris, check to see if it is listed on ABE. If it is, the price will be considerably lower at ABE. The second problem with Alibris is that you must order through them. You order passes from the dealer to their office, where it is packed in a cute cardboard box that says "Alibris." Perhaps they anticipated the extra time that all of this would take. You can monitor the progress that UPS is making with your box by clicking on "Shipping" at the Alibris site. ("What the hell is my book doing in Nevada?") Alibris has a standard shipping charge of $3.95, which is not bad.
There are other, smaller search engines for out-of-print and rare books. AntiQbook, Bibliocity, Powell's Books and YourBooks.com also allow you to search. One site, Bookfinder.com (http://www.bookfinder.com) claims to search all of these as well as ABE and Alibris. My tests support their claim. The site was started by Arirvan Chatterjee, a graduate student at University of California, Berkeley. It's a labor of love. In this business you have to be a little bit nuts.