Customers walking into A Collector's Book Shop on Delmar Boulevard pass right by the out-of-business sign. They see owner Sheldon Margulis sitting at the entryway, as he has for more than a decade, watching over the store with an expression somewhere between that of a gargoyle and a cherub. One man begins to walk toward the shelves, and Margulis tells him, "We're out of business." The man stands incredulous. "I wish you good luck, and thank you for buying books in here." The man's still not fully grasping what Margulis is telling him. "Everything is sold." The man finally shakes Margulis' hand, turns around and walks back out onto the Loop.
Another customer learns of the closing and responds with dismay: "This guy is depriving me of the only level of sanity I have. I know I'm sane, because he's insane." Yet another book lover in for an afternoon browse looks at Margulis in disbelief: "Oh, come on. You've got to be kidding."
Margulis is known for kidding about a lot of things, but not the sale of his used-book shop. "I got a call last week from somebody on the West Coast. He said, 'I understand you buy a lot of books.' We got to talking about various aspects of the shop. Then he asked, 'You interested in selling the whole thing?' Very quickly I said yes."
The West Coast buyer of Margulis' 115,000 books is Alibris, the Internet used-book seller with the clever full-page ads in national magazines that show a tattered hardcover edition of Jerry Kramer's Instant Replay, for instance, and tell you that the copy you lost to your mother's garage sale can be yours again. With $60 million in investment capital, $30 million from the major book distributor Ingram, Alibris has been buying collections all over the country in the last few months.
For Margulis, they couldn't have arrived in town at a better time. He's 59 years old. He's been working 80- to 90-hour weeks. "I've been overwhelmed, not getting a lot of sleep, not getting a lot of rest. They're a lifesaver, as far as I'm concerned. I'm surprised I haven't had a stroke or a heart attack." He received "a good sound offer" and is still negotiating over a position as a book buyer with the company. Once the books are packed and shipped to Alibris' Nevada warehouse, Margulis says, "I'll get over to Big Sleep" -- the mystery bookstore in the Central West End -- "and pick up 20 books and have a wonderful time."
Michelle Barron, of the Book House, is not so sanguine about Margulis' good fortune. "I am terrified," she says. "I'm sitting here with venture capitalists sitting over my head. With Alibris I could probably pick up the phone and sell out. I'm sitting here with customers panicking. We got a store full of panicked customers today. 'Where's all our bookstores going?' We've had panicked customers all year."
To Barron, who has stores in Rock Hill and Gray's Summit, Alibris is the evil empire. "They're pulling into towns like this, finding the hub dealer and buying them out. They're monopolizing the used-book industry and doing it in an insidious way." Just another example of corporations gobbling up the world, Barron insists, with independent moms and pops (retailers, alternative weeklies, bookstores) lost in the terrible maw. Barron feels threatened. Alibris, Amazon and Barnes & Noble are all involved in the Internet used-book business, working closely with independent bookstores (insidiously or not), constructing a network that provides book lovers with those out-of-prints they thought they'd never see again at just a click of the mouse. In response, Barron's forming her own alliances with other independent book dealers, the folks "with no money," to create their own Web site, findbooks.com, which, coincidentally, was launched just 48 hours before Alibris flew into town and bought out Margulis' stock.
"People are suddenly going to see no bookstores within two years," Barron warns. "Bookstores are going to become an anomaly. I don't think people realize this."
One of the reasons people aren't realizing this, though, is that it just isn't true.
Susan Siegel and her husband, David, publish The Used Book Lover's Guides through their Book Hunter Press. Siegel, reached at her home in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., knows individual booksellers around the country on a first-name basis. She knows "Sheldon" is closing and adds that he'd been looking to get out for at least a year. She also knows the used-book business from cover to cover and has gathered data that dispute Barron's dire forecast. From 1996-99, the number of used-book sellers has grown by 21 percent.
Siegel's Web site, bookhunterpress.com, includes a report on the expansion of used-book stores, titled "The Quiet Revolution." In the Midwest alone, from 1992-99, the number of used-book dealers increased by 27 percent.
Siegel refers to herself as a "neutral observer" of the changes Alibris has wrought. "I think Alibris, in general, has been good for the used-book business. It's increased awareness of the used-book market." She mentions those clever ads. "That, overall, is good. The more people who know about used books, the better. I think the whole Internet is introducing a whole new generation of book-buying people to the used-book market. They never knew they could get an out-of-print book."
Siegel doesn't believe that Alibris' rise is a harbinger of doom to independent used-book dealers. Many already sell through Alibris; others, like Barron, would just as soon be rid of them. Siegel says, "Some booksellers say, 'A sale is a sale is a sale. I don't care if I'm selling to Susan Siegel or I'm selling to Alibris. I'm making a sale, and I'm not concerned.' Others take a different tack and don't like to be put in the position of being Alibris' supplier. They don't want to be somebody's lackey."
One of the biggest complaints from used-book dealers who sell to Alibris is that their hard work and expertise go unacknowledged. Although stores that supply Alibris are listed on its Web site, customers don't know whether the book came from Alibris' own warehouse or from a supplier. Store owners argue that they lose potential sales if customers want to inquire about related titles.
There's a concern for identity as well. Booksellers are by nature an individualistic lot, and the character of a used-book store reflects the character of the owner. Through Alibris, Siegel says, "They lose their identity. They just become like wholesalers. They lose their identity as individual booksellers, and they want to keep that. And I think that's a legitimate issue."
Siegel also reports that those independents who've closed over the last few years have done it for reasons other than having venture capitalists sitting over their heads. Some dealers are just older, she says, and, like Margulis, are tired of going to the store six and seven days a week.
A remarkable phenomenon Siegel has documented in the recent "revolution" is that for every shop that is closing, another is taking its place. The sale of A Collector's Book Shop reflects this aspect of the current book business. As Margulis moves out, Javier Parada, with what will be the new used-book store on the Loop, is moving in. Parada and his business partner, Kelly von Plonski, have been itching for a book space for some time. Suddenly, and ironically enough, thanks to Alibris, it's happening.
Parada has worked for Margulis and over the years has collected some 15,000 titles for his initial stock. The lease hasn't been signed quite yet, but Parada is confident that Subterranean Books could open as early as September.
Parada estimates that the store will mostly consist of used books, with about 10 percent new titles. He hopes to attract a younger clientele and plans to feature "counterculture and alternative" subject matter, as well as a distinctive collection of books on rock and pop music.
A Collector's Book Shop was known for its curmudgeonly feel, with signs on every aisle informing the browser on the proper way to pull out a book. Parada looks to be a bit more "people-friendly," with some music playing, some areas to sit and read. Subterranean Books looks to be a literary place to hang.
He's not planning on aligning with Alibris, or Amazon or Barnes & Noble anytime soon, though. He'll be working on getting his own Web site running before very long.