Review Feature

Book shopping made easy for rural readers

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Based on October's weather, denizens of the Rim country may well spend much of this winter locked up in their homes, setting fire to dismembered trees, writing death threats to their local cable television company for the umpteenth blackout of the season, and trying to come up with ways to keep from going stir crazy.

There is a remedy. An old and fairly antiquated one, yes, but one that is guaranteed to entertain, educate, enlighten, inspire, make you laugh, make you cry and at best maybe even change the way you look at the world.

Read a book.

Or lots of books.

It's odd. There was a time when, it seemed, everybody read books. And maybe they still do. But you rarely see them in the process anymore.

For example, people always used to read books in airports while waiting for their planes. Now they build spreadsheets on their laptop computers, or play hand-held electronic games, or silently bounce and sway, propelled by the portable CD headphones strapped to their heads.

Longer ago, folks commonly spent chilly winter days curled up by the fireplace with a book that kept them enthralled for days. Today, their entire focus is on television shows which don't enthrall a soul; they just make you feel like, well, you're doing SOMETHING, and since there's nothing better on the tube at that moment, the something you are doing is better than the many lesser somethings you're not doing like watching "Blind Date," for instance.

Now there's a vague sense of achievement for you.

How reading lost its once-lofty luster is hard to say. But there is at least part of an explanation in these North-Central Arizona parts, where there are a couple of very nice used bookstores, but nary a one which peddles brand new, hot-off-the press titles (not counting the precious few you can occasionally find in Wal-Mart) or, worse, the precise title you've finally worked yourself into the mood to try.

Again, there is a remedy. There is a remedy a new and increasingly high-tech one, yes, but one that is guaranteed to plop into your hands practically any literary work that has been published in the history of the world.

The Internet.

Bookstore of the future

There are so many different books that no store could ever possibly stock them all.

Online "virtual" book stores have no physical constraints. They can include millions of different titles, storing the information in a database so that you can find what you want quickly, searching by author, subject, or title.

When you find the book you're looking for, it just means that if you want it, they can deliver it. In most cases, they don't own or have the book in physical stock, but they can get it to you in a matter of a couple of days.

Typically, the basic listings come from Books in Print, a publication of R.R. Bowker (www.bowker.com) which attempts to catalog all books published in the U.S. Their Internet edition includes more than 900,000 titles published since 1979. A would-be superstore sets up a searchable database starting with that information and makes business partnerships with one or more distributors.

Some online superstores, like Barnes and Noble (www.barnesandnoble.com) are connected with pre-existing physical stores or chains of stores. Others, like Amazon.com, will probably never go to the expense of building brick-and-mortar stores. The typical superstore will have some best-selling books in stock for very quick turnaround. They'll forward other orders to their distributors for shipment in a few days, or special order from the publisher for delivery in a few weeks. If you need a book quickly, you might want to shop around the various superstores to see which one guarantees fastest delivery for that particular title.

How do some online bookstores offer a greater number of titles than those found in Books in Print? Some, like Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, bolster the number of items they have for sale by including out-of-print books (for which they have finder services.) Amazon also has a small-press program, Advantage, which accepts books on consignment making available to the general public rare, out-of-print works that otherwise would be almost impossible to find and difficult to purchase.

A personal journey

Speaking of rare, out-of-print works ...

Let's say you searched all of the Web sites cited in these pages for a specific book, with no luck.

Don't give up.

In 1994, I wrote a book called "The Dad Zone," published by Simon & Schuster, purveyors of fine literature, and perhaps the biggest publishing house in the world.

I only report such things, I can't explain them.

On the plus side, my book reached its second printing, meaning that the first printing sold out, so they printed more. This doesn't happen very often with books by first-time authors especially humor books, which are considered to be the worst-selling genre on the bookstore shelves.

When my book was first published, I thought that it would be in bookstores forever. That was neither the first nor last time I was proven dead wrong.

Simply put, bookstores have limited shelf space. Publishers battle for this space, and only the best selling books are stocked. Thousands of other books don't make it, and even the ones that do soon get pushed aside by new titles. The losers are shipped back to the publishers as "returns," with the store receiving full credit for the unsold books. The returned books eventually show up as "remainders," and are liquidated at enormous discounts.

"Remainders" then go to "remainder houses," such as the kind of bookstores most commonly found in outlet malls, where every book has been hugely discounted. These can be found on the Internet, too.

But on none of them could I find a copy of "The Dad Zone." (My personal supply had been exhausted by freeloaders, tightwads and other co-workers curious to determine how Simon & Schuster could sign ME up to write a book but not curious enough to actually shell out money for the privilege.)

So I went to eBay, the most comprehensive of the thirty gazillion Internet auction houses you can easily find on the Internet. On my first try, bingo! There it was, complete with a picture of the front and back, as well as the incredibly glamorous dust-jacket picture of a young, handsome, abundantly-haired me that was shot in or around 1912.

Incredibly, I found the book when there was only eight minutes left before the close of auction. The bidding was fast. The bidding was furious. My heart nearly stopped several times. My knuckles turned white. Cold sweat poured from my brow like Kool-Aid from a pitcher. (Now you can see why Simon & Schuster asked ME to write a book.)

I was victorious. My own book was mine again.

What did I pay? That's not important. Really. It was such a personal triumph that I can't bring myself to ...

Oh, OK. It was fifty cents. All right? Are you happy? But that doesn't include shipping and handling!

I am now compelled to report that, a few days later, I found another copy of "The Dad Zone" offered through eBay, and it sold for $8.75.

I didn't bid, though. After you pay fifty cents for something, $8.75 seems like a lot of money. Even for a book written by a young, handsome, abundantly-haired me.

The biggest and the best online bookstores

The highly publicized success of Amazon.com has attracted lots of competitors. Here's a list of the best known online book retailers today, but expect plenty more to join the fray and, as the effects of online competition settle in, don't be shocked if some have closed down by the time you try to reach them.

A1Books (www.a1books.com)

alt.bookstore (www.altbookstore.com)

Amazon.com (www.amazon.com)

Barnes and Noble (www.barnesandnoble.com)

Book Stacks Unlimited (www.books.com)

Books-a-Million (www.booksamillion.com)

Books Now (www.booksnow.com)

Borders (www.borders.com)

Buy.com (www.buy.com)

King Books (www.kingbooks.com)

Powells (www.powells.com)

Shopping.com (www.shopping.com/ibuy/books)

Wordsworth (www.wordsworth.com)

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