Monday, October 05, 2009

The Slightly Used Book Shop

I've often said that there are only a few international consumerist icons that I really wish existed in Estonia, and that among them are Subway (the sandwich place), and Waterstone's bookstores. I have a vocational disorder where I cannot read a book in translation if I know the original language - I keep getting distracted by the artifacts, keep going "I see what you did there". The selection of English books in Tartu and Estonia in general, while significantly improved in recent times, is still inadequate for my requirements. Half of my baggage coming back from the States was dead tree.

Yes, there's Amazon, but a)shipping gets expensive, and b)I still enjoy the experience of visiting a brick-and-mortar bookshop and browsing through the tomes. It's probably ironic how, in the age of the Internet, physical books are still so eminently popular. Popular enough, in fact, to fall under the "80% of everything is shit" maxim. For proof, go no further than the guest segments on The Daily Show.

I saw something in NYC that is even better than Waterstone's, or Barnes & Noble, or Borders. The biggest bookstore in Manhattan does a very brisk business in second hand. They actually have a section and staff dedicated to buying back people's books.

This is an idea that, I think, would be extremely beneficial to Tartu. I have actually considered doing it myself, except for the fact that I am far too lazy to handle all the minutiae of starting up and running a small business; I would need to find a really good manager and stay a silent investor type myself. (I do know a person who'd be perfect, but that very character quality means she's already quite busy with various organizational duties.) But I genuinely think that a slightly used book store could be successful in this town. Tartu has an Apollo and a Rahva Raamat, and the university bookshop, but beyond that it's just antique stores with derelict wares. There must be others like me in this town, people with shelves stuffed with books they enjoyed once but probably won't re-read in the future. If, say, the average new English-language paperback costs 150 EEK, my shop could buy them back for 50 and sell for 75. And we don't have to limit ourselves to English books, the point rather is to offer a cheap alternative for modern, mainstream literature, in any (physical) form. How many times do you think we would re-sell the same Harry Potter volume, collecting a profit each time? I gather that US videogame stores have been doing quite well off that model.

And no, I wouldn't be competing with libraries: they have a limited selection, aren't motivated to keep up with demand, and come with a built-in obligation to return the book by a certain deadline. Ownership just feels good.

Until I get off my ass and make this happen, however, here's the next best thing: BookMooch. It's the book version of an idea some friends and I threw around for a while, the International Beer Exchange - the point was to mail a bottle of your local brew to someone far away, and get a credit that you could use to request a different flavour from elsewhere. (I even owned the domain for a while.) My plans for the Slightly Used Book Shop did actually involve providing the service across Estonia, using the SmartPOST network. BookMooch is a more Web2.0 community-ish affair: you list the books you no longer want, and people can show their interest. You send off the book, and get an arbitrary credit that you can use to request another book from someone else. Encouragingly, Estonia is actually already represented quite well, with around 60 books currently available.

Here's my page on that service. Sign up, and tell your friends about the service!


Rui Pacheco said...

It asks for a password when I try to navigate to your page.

antyx said...

Click Cancel > Visit without joining.

Or sign up.

Kristopher said...

You have to get Vello on board for this one. Sadly I've been gravitating away from dead-tree, not to Kindle but at least to ipaper sort of stuff.

(Gratuitous rant: Subway -- please. The business model is retarded -- the clerk asks you in the case of each topping if you want it on your sandwich. Have sushi order cards like the Japanese or better yet, a free "fixins bar". The only thing that's brilliant is the nasty corporation's food cost margin on the crap ingredients.)

Pierce Bacchus said...

Subway sandwiches are complete and utter garbage. I do hope you were able to visit a real deli / sub shop while you were in NYC.

I had an idea to open a sub shop in Tallinn years ago. I would serve cheap take-away subs and sweet iced tea. Got the idea from some young American guys that did it in Prague and made a killing in the 90's. Glad I never did though. Knowing what I know now, it would have been a miserable failure.

antyx said...

I did go to a Swedish-themed place at one point in NYC (my local spirit guide said it was quite good). Had a nice "woah, I'm really here" moment eating their salmon roll in the park next to City Hall.

Subway may be crap in absolute terms, but it's a hell of an improvement over the options in Estonia. Mind you, the concept seems to be catching on, minus the chain aspect - there's a sandwich place in Lõunakeskus that's survived for a couple of years, and Metro on the corner of Narva mnt and Raatuse is serving sandwiches now.

Pierce Bacchus said...

Subway may be crap in absolute terms, but it's a hell of an improvement over the options in Estonia.

Not arguing that point as it's not hard to improve on what is available locally. Though I'm a DIY guy and that includes food, so I'd find a way to make my own top tier sandwich.

Colm said...

One of my favourite bookshops was the Waterstones in Amsterdam because they had a big Linguistics section. Most times in a bookshop the only language books they have are for learning languages and usually that means those annoying Berlitz or TeachYourself series.

I love second hand bookshops and I find half the fun is in rooting around. Amazon is great in that you can find almost anything but it's so much more fun to be able to hold a book in your hand before you buy it.

Sadly the lack of lingusitics books in Irish book shops mostly forces me to go on Amazon.


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