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Book Collecting on the Internet
by: Joseph Sullivan
The best buy in our book collection was made by my wife a couple of years ago at a garage sale when she came on a very good copy (in somewhat tattered dust jacket) of the beautiful Cleve Hallenbeck book The Journey of Fray Marcos de Niza, designed and published by Carl Hertzog, and worth, say, $200+. She paid a dime for it. You will never find a deal like that on the Internet, and, of course, you will never have quite the thrill of discovery that went along with it. But the Net is a very exciting place for the serious collector, nonetheless.
Bargains can be found, too. Take, for example that same book, The Journey of Fray Marcos de Niza. The day before yesterday, I took five minutes to look through the complete inventories of a couple of thousand book dealers here and abroad, to see if any of them had a copy. Several did. Prices for the most part were in the $200 to $250 range, but one was offered, in fine condition with fine dust jacket, for $24.50. That may not equal our ten-cent special, but it is a darned good deal nonetheless.
At this point, you may suspect a misprint. Five minutes to look through the complete inventories of over a thousand dealers around the world? Five minutes? Actually, it was probably more like ten, if you count time spent messing with the computer before really getting down to business. How is this possible, you ask? By using one of the so-called "search engines" that are dedicated to books. Never mind all the technicalities, a book "search engine" works like the computerized catalogues in use at most public libraries. You type in any one (or combination of) author, title, subject, or some other key word or words, and press "enter" on the keyboard. In seconds, the results are displayed on your computer screen.
These book "search engines" appear to be maintained cooperatively, or possibly as private enterprises. All the participating dealers place their complete inventories in a sort of master electronic catalogue, to which we have interactive access via a "web page" on that part of the Internet known as the World Wide Web. I have no idea how many book "search engines" there are. At least two good ones exist, "Bibleofind" , in Victoria, British Columbia, and "Advanced Book Exchange" in Great Barrington Massachusetts (of course, on the Web, it is irrelevant where they are physically located).
So just how powerful are these tools? A few minutes ago, searches of ABE (Advanced Book Exchange) for items by J. Evetts Haley yielded the following results: 120 Haley items, including first editions of The XIT Ranch and the Early Days of the Llano Estacado, a couple of copies of Heraldry of the Range, and two copies of Earl Vandale on the Trail of Texas Books. When the search was narrowed to only first editions, the count dropped to 90 items, of which 10 were signed by Haley. Similar searches of Bibleofind turned up 112 Haley items, including three Vandales. A Tom Lea search on ABE found 249 total items, including 145 first editions, and one copy of the scarce Saddle Blanket Edition of The King Ranch. A look at Bibleofind a few days ago found no less than four of the Saddle Blanket editions. In each case, the search took less than five minutes.
In addition to these large, multi-dealer "search engines", there are no telling how many individual dealer sites on the Web. It is sort of fun, but time consuming, to try to find them. Start with one of the major Web "search engines" such as Alta Vista, Lycos, Hot Bot, or Yahoo. You can find these by pressing the "search" button on your Web browser. In the space provided, type in words to guide the search, for example "used books". It may take a minute or so, but fairly quickly you will have a number of choices that the computer thinks match your wants. Often that number is unmanageably huge, like say 348,697, or 298,763, so you just look through as many as you get to before you get bored. Many are not at all what you are looking for, and you must deal with descriptions that are like badly-written catalogue entries. Nevertheless, you do hit pay dirt now and then. For example, that is how I found both Bibleofind and ABE. One big help is that some Web sites maintain "links", which are electronic instructions that tell your computer how to get to other similar Web sites. That saves you the trouble of hunting them all up for yourself. You simply "click" on the "link" and youre there.
There is one feature of Web book collecting that really stands out, for now. The dealers do not seem to compare prices, even on the same "search engines"; hence the ten-to-one price differential in the Fray Marcos example above. In a few seconds, you can compare several dealers offering prices, just by stroking a few keys. It is a serious buyers dream. On the other hand, your ability to haggle is limited.
Once you find the book you want, you "click" on the designated spot, and up pops a screen with the dealers terms of sale, address, phone, etc. On the big multi-dealer services, there is a built-in way to communicate by email. It is a matter of typing a sentence or two, if you want more details on condition, or want to verify an edition, printing, etc. The dealer usually responds quickly (by email if you have it). If all is to your liking, you send payment, and receive your book via US "snail" Mail. The process is not much different than buying from a paper catalogue.
Two recent examples show how it works. Two dealers on Bibleofind each had a book I wanted. In each case, I had compared prices, and found what appeared to be the best deal. I emailed the dealers, asking for verification of availability and condition. The first responded that the book in question had already been sold. The second gave details of condition, and placed the book on hold in my name. The check was mailed, and in a few days, the book arrived - just as advertised. Later that I discovered that I already owned a copy, in equally good condition. And that takes me to my next electronic adventure -- the creation of a catalogue database, so I can easily check and see what the devil I already have, before spending anymore money.