Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2005 Issue

Alibris Visited

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Sorting books at Alibris


Ken Aaron runs the Catalog Section. These are the books that are in Alibris's stock in the warehouse. And a vast, vast number of books there are! There is row upon row of used books standing like sentinels to literacy on six-tiered, gray metal shelves. These are what Mark calls "common" books; in other words they are low-priced books of every ilk, valued at $5 to $20 or more. They are of a type that one finds in just about every used bookstore. They occasionally buy small numbers of remainders from a remainder house, sometimes they buy stock from estates or sellers who are closing their book businesses, and some of the books are from orders gone awry and returned to Alibris by a customer. These books come into the cataloging department and are put into their online inventory, then they are shelved until an order comes in, at which time a staff member pulls the correct book and fills the order. It runs pretty much like any other bookstore except for the volume.

This immense catalogue of books, however, is not their central focus. The books that we booksellers have in our inventories are where they get their primary stock. As Mark Nason pointed out, Barnes and Noble bookstores sell coffee, but they are not coffee experts. Alibris sells books, but they are not book experts, we, the booksellers are, and for the more valuable books, there is no substitute for our expertise. He made another comparison: That Alibris is the lumber company that puts the trees through the sawmill and makes the planks, it is their online booksellers who are the woodcarvers that make the planks special.

We walked through the steps taken by a book that isn't sent directly to the customer by an Alibris bookseller. These are generally books that go overseas, or that were ordered through Borders and will be sent to them to distribute to their customers. It also includes volumes that will go to libraries and schools and the like. The book arrives by mail from the bookseller. It is opened by the first line of defense, the Receiving crew. They unwrap the books and send them to another staff member who checks the books for condition, and invoices and sorts the books by destination. The volumes then go into large plastic totes that are placed on a snakelike conveyor belt. The totes are marked with a bar code that is read by the conveyor belt and spit into the proper shipping area by automation.

The books are then packaged and sent out. As Mark pointed out, they don't ship each book separately. If they have a number of books to go overseas, they save up a large crate full and ship them all at once. If they have twelve copies of Catch 22 from 12 different dealers to go to one school or library, they collect them all and send them all together in one package, thus saving themselves and their customers a great deal of postage.

I mentioned to Mark that I always wrap my valuable books in brown paper or bubble wrap before I send them out. A couple of times, I have received emails from Alibris telling me not to wrap the books so heavily. Mark said that one pet peeve in the Receiving area is over-packaging books. I argued that the books needed to be well protected as the Post Office does not always treat them tenderly. He said that unless it is a valuable book, say over $50 or $100, it is not necessary to pack them in any more than a protective envelope or small box, and puleeez, no peanuts! I warned him that if I felt it necessary to heavily wrap a fragile or expensive book, I would and his receivers would just have to curse me. He noted that with 8,000 books coming in each day, perhaps three books might sustain some damage. I thought that was a pretty good average, as long as one of the three wasn't one of mine.

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