TomFolio.com Book Dealer Co-op Now in its 13th Year - An Uphill Struggle to Make it Work

- by Susan Halas

Tom foliopix board

Tom Folio President Henry Hain III and board member Bette Feinstein.

TomFolio.com may not be the best known name in the world of bookselling databases, but it is one of the most innovative and unusual. Founded back in 2000, the heady early days of on-line bookselling, it had big plans to wrest control of internet used and out-of-print sales from the bean counters and place it in the hands of the individual dealers with a real knowledge and love of the trade.

TomFolio took its name from a 1710 quote by Joseph Addison describing a ubiquitous bibliophile who seemed to show up everywhere that books were sold. Its cooperative format was loosely adopted from other kinds of ventures such as credit unions and farmers’ organizations where the members were also owners and then paid modest fees to sustain the enterprise.

Today it’s evident that the bean counters are in the lead -- Amazon, Alibris and Abe are filled with penny sellers and mega-listers. They are clearly being run by people whose main focus is financial and technical and whose interest in books is secondary (if in fact that interest exists at all).

Though TomFolio is still struggling to stay afloat, it has outlasted a number of other cooperative ventures, and except for a paid webmaster, it is still an all volunteer organization.

Lee Kirk of The Prints & The Paper, an ephemera specialist in Eugene, Oregon, is a charter member, TF blogger and perhaps semi-official den mother to the clan. She pointed out that the site currently has over 120 member dealers throughout the US and Canada, as well as South Africa, the Netherlands, UK, India and other countries.

“Selling books on TomFolio is not an easy solution,” said Arne Schaefer, a past TF president, who runs Africana Books in Cape Town, South Africa. But, he continued, “If you want to be a bookseller that is in some way different from the soulless big boys and faceless bulk listers, be it because of your choice of subject, your knowledge of a genre, your dedication to giving outstanding service to your clients, your willingness to share knowledge, or being prepared to work just that little bit harder to spread the good word about TomFolio (and yourself, of course) – then you will probably find that your ‘marriage’ with TF is a good one.”

“TomFolio offers its members many services for a small monthly fee,” said Don Gallagher, who with wife Sue runs Gallagher Books in Denver. “Those fees,” he said, “haven’t changed since TF opened and there are no commissions on sales. Customers have been impressed by the category system (an attempt to facilitate browsing). The technological stability of the site has been impressive – very rarely any downtime.” Other site features he noted included author autographs, awards, biographies, and pseudonyms.