With the exception of the conveyor belts, most of the work in the warehouse, including receiving, shelving, and packaging, is hand-done by the crew. One automated beast, however, is the "ravioli" machine. For single book orders -- in other words just one book to a single customer -- the ravioli slaps a cover of corrugated cardboard around the book and squishes the edges down so that when the package comes off the belt, it appears to be large brown ravioli with a label. It's very cool!
I have occasionally received one of Alibris's Fulfillment Rate Notices. You get those when you have a book listed, but then it is not available when ordered. Now we all know there are lots of bothersome reasons for this. You forget to delete from your inventory, you don't upload your new inventory often enough, your shelver misplaces the book, or someone picks up the book and carries it off without benefit of paying for it. Alibris's shelf stock is organized with a number for each. It is shelved by that number and no one other than their staff has access to the books. Their fulfillment rate from their own catalog stock is 99.999%, Mark told me. So of course, I complained to Mark about these annoying notices, since I do my utmost best to keep my own inventory up to date without their state-of-the-art technology. He said, however, that if a customer orders a book from any Alibris or Borders store, the order goes to the bookseller. If the bookseller doesn't have the advertised book, it makes everyone down the line look bad and annoys the customer. He noted that it is important to make sure the customer's experience meets his/her expectations. I think that is all well and good; however, sometimes we can't always get what we want when we want it.
We chatted about employees. They have 50-60 employees during the busy season who work from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week. Since there are three major booksellers in the area, they try to make their employees work time as pleasant as possible, they meet or beat the pay rates the other large booksellers offer and, in addition, they are located in a more convenient area of town than the other two, so employees don't have to commute as far. In fact, they were getting ready to have an employee bar-b-que for the Friday lunch hour. My biggest gripe, if I worked there, would be that there are no windows.
We discussed the controversy about the big online bookstores putting independents out of business. As Mark noted, there are two sides to that controversy. For the customer, having a bigger variety of books for less money is a positive thing. Of course, Mark said the sellers "may have a different opinion." He felt that until a book is in a catalog somewhere, it doesn't exist. If it is in a garage, basement or attic, no one knows about it. Once it is online or in a bookstore then it exists and the book buyer can find it. They just put the books out there so that can happen.
As we ended our tour, Mark Nason said emphatically, "Alibris is not the Devil. This is how we get the books people love in front of people who love books."
Essentially, he is correct. Every business goes into business hoping to put someone else out of business. This is America and we are, if nothing else, business oriented. Alibris, like all the other big corporations is a business designed to make money and the only way we small booksellers can compete is to buy carefully and offer something unique or rare. To paraphrase Mark Nason, the niche for independent booksellers is to choose books that you know will sell. If you've chosen correctly, then you win. It may not be what we booksellers want, but it is what is, so we must come up with ways to make the best of it.