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Turning over an old leaf

Used-book sales are growing as more people look to Web pages for bargains

The publishing business has improved in the past month, but not by much. J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" and Hillary Rodham Clinton's "Living History" have been monster bestsellers, but both their American publishers (Scholastic Inc. and Simon & Schuster) have laid off workers recently. Large chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders report slow sales. New book sales grew only 1.3 percent from 1997 to 2002.

But there's a bright spot, at least for some: the steady increase in used-book sales. A new report by Book Hunter Press, which tracks used-book stores and publishes the "Used Book Lover's Guide," cites a 20 percent increase in the number of used-book dealers from 1993 to 2002. Ipsos BookTrends, a Chicago-based research firm, estimates that Americans bought 145 million used books last year, spending $533 million. (By comparison, the Book Industry Study Group reports total noneducational book sales of $7 billion in 2002.) "About one-third of trade [nontextbook] buyers bought both a new and a used book between April and December 2002," says Barrie Rappaport, manager of Ipsos BookTrends. "If you can save $5 on a book, why not?"

Susan Siegel, co-owner of Book Hunter Press, suspects the Ipsos figure is actually an undercount, because most used-book sellers are small, private operators who don't report their sales. "They say it's $533 million," Siegel says, "but it could be $850 million if you count online dealers."

Indeed, the Internet has become a major factor in the used-book market.

"However much money is being made," says Vincent McCaffrey, owner of the Avenue Victor Hugo used-book store in the Back Bay, "I know that because of the Internet more people are buying used books right now than ever before."

Amazon.com jumped into the used-book market last year by adding a "new or used" option to every new book listed on its site, which leads a customer to a list of small or middle-size booksellers offering the book at a deep discount to the new-book price. Since then, both Barnes & Noble and Borders have offered links to used-book sources. Mainstream publishers and the Authors Guild, a writers group, have raised a fuss, to no avail.

"While we are glad that used-book sales are creating additional revenue for some of our booksellers," says Random House spokesman Stuart Appelbaum, "it's regrettable that neither authors nor publishers are benefiting financially."

There's no telling how many small Internet booksellers are out there, but it's so easy to become one that there may be thousands. Genevieve Kazdin of Pocasset, doing business as Dunes Studio, sells 20 to 60 books a week from her house on Cape Cod. "I have 8,000 books," she says. "You're limited by your storage space. I don't have to leave the Cape. I live here, and this is where I want to be. This would have been impossible before the Internet. It has opened up the world of books to countless people."

Bob Ticehurst, 25, of Arlington is an especially busy bookseller. A former Marine and accountant doing business as "Marine Bob," Ticehurst started buying books on the Internet several years ago for friends at work and discovered he could make money at it. "It kept growing," he says. "I started advertising on the bulletin board at work. At first it was one or two books a day, then I started driving to work and paying $30 a day to park because I had so many books in the car."

Two and a half years ago, he quit his job to buy and sell books full time, and now he ships 100 to 200 books a day. "It's crazy," Ticehurst says. "The past six weeks have been the best I've had, and this should be the slow time of year. It's been like Christmas."

Like many sellers, Ticehurst offers his books primarily on Amazon.com (other used-book sites include Alibris.com, Abebooks.com, Bookfinder.com, and Choosebooks.com). He has to meet Amazon's rules for fair and truthful dealings and pay a fee (usually 5 percent of the closing price). He also has his own site -- www.

marinebob.com -- where he sells books, videos, and CDs. Ticehurst buys books everywhere. He sends friends out with cash to cruise flea markets and public library sales. Bookstores that are about to return unsold books to publishers call him to come and have a look. He patrols discount stores, notes their book prices, checks the going Internet price for the books, and, if he thinks he can turn a profit, buys the whole lot and resells it. On the Internet, "used" doesn't necessarily mean "previously read."

Many owners of established used-book stores feel they have to list part of their holdings on the Internet to compete with people like Ticehurst, who are catering to the growing number of customers who would rather shop for books online. Avenue Victor Hugo briefly closed last year (then reopened in a smaller nearby location), partly because McCaffrey offered relatively few books on his Internet site.

"Stores like ours are dinosaurs," McCaffrey says. "I had a student in here the other day. He has a tax ID number, and he's competing with me. He can go to book sales, buy 50 books, look up the going price, and sell on the Internet."

The online book market represents a cultural shift, says Siegel of Book Hunter Press.

"Used books have become more acceptable," she says. "Buying a used book as a gift is now OK. People say, `My father would love that golf book. He won't mind if it's used.' " In the past, most people just kept the books they bought until they threw or gave them away. But Siegel says many book buyers today "will read a book, are not going to read it again, and can sell it and get cash to buy more books."

Students especially are flocking to online booksellers for used textbooks.

"If you're looking for a textbook," says McCaffrey, "the college bookstore wants $76 for a physics text. The student has a laptop computer; he goes to Bookfinder.com and finds the book selling for $20. Why should he spend $76 at the college bookstore?"

If the Internet has opened up a world of ways for consumers to buy used books, so has it opened up a worldwide customer base for bookstores.

"I am able to sell books that, in the past, prior to the Internet, would have sat on the shelf indefinitely," says Larry Pruner, owner of Valley Books in Amherst.

"Certain categories of books had a limited market in a limited geographical area. [Before the Internet] only so many people could come into my store."

Still, some used-book sellers haven't been persuaded that Internet sales are essential to success. Randi White, owner of the Book Barn of Niantic, Conn., has 200,000 used books spread out in six buildings on a country road and at a second store in downtown Niantic. He doesn't sell on the Internet, yet he says his July sales were 15 percent ahead of last year.

White maintains that when store owners put a portion of their titles online, there's no incentive for customers to visit them to find out what other good books they might have. He might have a book that you can't find online. "It works for me," he says. "I can sell a book for $5, not $15 with the packing and mailing cost, and I don't have to have a huge shipping department."

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

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