Saturday, November 22, 2003


Surfing for Bargains
People now browse their favorite bookstores online for great deals

Jeanette White
Staff writer

When Christie Onzay goes to baby showers or birthday parties, her gifts usually come in flat packages. As a librarian, she loves sharing books and buys the best for her home as well.

Also as a librarian, she knows a secret more book lovers are discovering: Great deals are often found online.

This isn't just shopping for routine discounts off retail price. Onzay's brand of bargain shopping involves scouring numerous book sites to find the deepest discount possible.

Recently, she logged onto and spent $100 on a stack of favorite children's titles, including a copy of Jez Alborough's popular "Hug," at a fraction of the usual price.

"Most books I buy are 60 percent off the list price," said Onzay, a children's librarian at the North Spokane branch of the Spokane County Library.

More people are browsing their favorite bookstores, local and national, from home: over morning coffee, during bouts of insomnia, while baby is napping -- whenever a trip to a bookstore is inconvenient. They can even search for books in stores they've never heard of in towns they've never been to.

One Spokane woman compares it to garage-saling without leaving home, except the books are both new and used.

A 26-year-old co-founder of, which attracts millions of shoppers a year, calls it a "new Renaissance" in bookselling.

Clientele varies widely, says Anirvan Chatterjee of Berkeley, Calif. "They include students, academics, plain folks who like to read, older folks looking for books they've read a long time back. We have a lot of book collectors. It's really a wide range." grew out of his passion for books and a college project, said Chatterjee. While he won't divulge the specifics of his business, Chatterjee says customers can easily, at no cost, search 50,000 bookstore inventories around the world from their home computers.

His Web site calls "a literary shopping engine, with a database of over 50 million books." Customers can search for books -- new, used and out-of-print -- by title, author, or language.

Ann Simpson, owner of 2nd Look Books on Spokane's South Hill, refers customers to and similar sites when she doesn't have a title someone wants. While some store owners dislike online competition, Simpson believes the Internet has helped used-book stores by allowing them international exposure.

"The used bookstore for years ... was kind of the black sheep in the family. With about 95 percent of books ever published out of print, the Internet has given us a whole new lease on life."

As for customers, she said, "There are millions of little bookstores you'd love to do business with. The Internet has given us that opportunity. It gives you as the buyer a lot of leverage as to how you want to shop."

For used books, she recommends searching, which bills itself as "the world's largest online marketplace for used, rare and out-of-print books."

Local bookstores, including 2nd Look Books, Children's Corner Bookshop and Auntie's Bookstore, have created online sites listing their own inventories. So far at Auntie's, mostly used books are listed. "One of our weaknesses is we haven't done enough to spiff up our site," said owner Chris O'Harra.

The surge in online book buying saddens O'Harra, who prefers meeting customers face-to-face, chatting about favorite books and helping them find treasures.

"But that's not what the future brings," she said. "The future says we really need to work on our (online) site. To many, many people, they could care less about meeting with people. They just want the book. It's a very, very different way of looking at retail."

Online selling also means great deals sometimes get "snapped up" by faraway customers instead of loyal locals, O'Harra said.

But Judy Hamel, co-owner of Children's Corner Bookshop, believes plenty of booklovers are committed to local stores with great books and sharp employees.

"The reason people come to our bookstore is because we have an incredible inventory of children's books, and a staff that reads those books, knows them and can do research," Hamel said. "We have people who call and say, `I have six grandchildren. Here are their ages. Will you pick out some books for them?"'

People who want to search online but haven't a computer or the time call Gusdorf's Books, 10525 E. Sprague Ave., where employees will search for them. Gusdorf's checks its own stock first, then online sources; a $5 "finder's fee" is charged for books purchased, said owner Laura Gusdorf.

Scott Franz, a book buyer for Gonzaga University's bookstore, understands the importance of supporting local bookstores. But they don't often have what he collects -- decades-old books on sailing. "Where 10 years ago, I'd never find a book like that without going to the coast and shopping around, now I can browse anytime, anywhere, and find specific books," said Franz.

He also buys books as gifts for like-minded friends. And like other savvy online buyers, Franz sometimes borrows the title from a library first to make sure he wants to buy it.

Then he compares online prices, often finding a wide range. The price of a collectable book can vary by hundreds of dollars, depending on the seller, Franz said.

Even with modern titles, new hardbacks sometimes can be found for less than the paperback version.

Ellen Teller, a South Hill woman who home schools two teenagers, Noah and Matthew, says she can't always afford new books. Home-schooling families are often skilled at ferreting out online deals, she said. "We're paying for our kids' education so we need to use our money wisely. (Books) are quite expensive, and we're doing high school now."

She buys used textbooks on a home-school section of, but she also shops Borders in North Spokane because it gives educators a 20 percent discount. Teller recently went online when she couldn't find a certain translation of The Iliad locally.

Onzay, the North Spokane librarian, still relies on when she wants a new book fast and in guaranteed top shape. Although sells new books, they're often returns from bookstores that overstocked and may have a telltale black marker scrawl across the bottom.

But that doesn't stop the company, with warehouses in the U.S. and Canada, from selling some 10 million books a year, said founder Bill Van Vliet. Stock changes daily, though it usually takes six to 12 months before a new book might be listed.

"The inventory changes constantly, which can be good and bad," said Van Vliet. "If you see something you like, it might be gone in a week."

Books are listed by category, with the children's section being largest. Caldecott and Newberry winners are sometimes listed along with lesser-known titles.

Sandy Clemons of Spokane prefers to bid on used books through eBay, where sellers are rated by customer feedback. She sticks to sellers with good reputations. It's a handy source of gifts for her husband, Duane, and son, Beau, who love old World War I books.

"It's very interesting, and then you're always waiting for something to come in the mail," she said. "Some I've only paid a dollar or two for have turned out to be worth $30 or $40."

For her, the thrill is in the hunt, Clemons said. "The majority of the time, I'm just kind of like browsing ... in the comfort of my own home. And I never have to leave."

•Jeanette White can be reached at (509) 459-5427 or by email at

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