Friday, March 18, 2022

From Dial-up to Wifi: The Age of Online Book Shopping


 In the 1990s, in the age of dial-up, I was oblivious of online shopping.  My laptop made a whirring noise as a slow, twirling ball on the screen indicated the struggle of the machine to connect and took me to my lunchtime book club chat.  In the middle of a heated, typed discussion of a book by Margaret Drabble, the computer booted me off. It was part of the experience.  I did not expect much.

 And then we got WiFi and it was very fast.  Suddenly there were online bookstores. I discovered Amazon, the Barnes and Noble website, Alibris, Abebooks, eBay, Thriftbooks, Powell's, etc.  (Do tell me your favorites!)

"YOU SHOULD ONLY BUY AT INDIES," a puritanical friend announced.

I'm not a monster:  I would if I could.  But the independent bookstore here is the size of a lady's handkerchief in a Regency romance.  And even Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature, has only one indie bookstore left, the great Prairie Lights.  And The Haunted Bookshop, Iowa City's last used bookstore, has been open by appointment only since the pandemic started: one pays $25 an hour to browse.

"IT'S BASICALLY CLOSED," my severe friend said.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't? 

Online bookstores are a godsend for me.  I mean, I live in the wilds, yes? With the click of a key, I can find almost any out-of-print book at a reasonable price.  I hope used bookstores make some money selling online, though perhaps not much.

About 10 years ago, a naive used bookstore owner complained to me that  his business had been ruined by print-on-demand.  This innocent had not heard of the Kindle or the Nook: I didn't want to spoil his day with unwanted information. 

Prices of used books seem to be lower in physical bookstores these days but have soared online since the beginning of the pandemic.  I watch the prices to see if they go down  (though so far they only go up), because it is  satisfying to know a book is available if I find a reasonable price.

In fact, the only book I've never been able to find online- and I looked for it for years - was Eleanor Cameron's 1950 adult novel, The Unheard Music.  As a child, I loved her Julia Redfern series, and hoped The Unheard Music would be a treasure. Finally I found a copy in a storage building at a university library.  It is a pretty good book, with echoes of Carson McCullers.  I do wish she'd written more for adults.


One thing I've noticed:   bookstore algorithms do not work very well.  At Goodreads, which is a kind of portal to bookshops,  the recommendations are strangely off.   After reviewing a Japanese novel, a Georgette Heyer book was recommended on my home page.  Everyone loves Georgette Heyer, but clearly Goodreads had gone crazy.

In the early 2000s, Amazon may have had the smartest algorithm in the world: in fact, I wouldn't have been surprised if real people were recommending:  I learned about small-press books like Emily Carter's Glory Goes and Gets Some (Coffee House Press) and Kathleen Hill's Still Waters in Niger (TriQuarterly). Both fabulous books I would never have learned about otherwise.

At the moment, Barnes and Noble has a smart, very attractive website, where you can learn very quickly about the latest books.  And the stores too have improved since James Daunt, the CEO, took over.  I'm sure Daunt doesn't give a damn about the store here, but kudos anyway because there's a trickle-down in the flyover states.  The backlist is much improved, and the store now sells Penguins.  It used to sell only the name-brand Barnes & Noble classics.

And so I feel there is a wealth of choice in online bookstores.   
You may have to go to a big city to find excellent indie bookstores, but meanwhile we're chuffed to have online stores.


  1. Don't you use That's basically all the others put together. Absolutely invaluable.

  2. Yes, Bookfinder is great, though it puts a crimp in peripheral shopping!

  3. I like for the really difficult to find books. And Amazon and Ebay of course. I remember how difficult it was in the mid 80s to get books from England and other countries. One had to be lucky to find a mention in a periodical and persistent and be ready to Pay with international money orders which required a trip to a brick n mortar bank. Now the whole world can come to my house easily. (And does, my TBR piles are mountain ranges now!)

    1. I never thought of buying books from England in the '80s. They are still horrifically expensive, though, because of the postage. I can't wait fo try Used Addall. Never heard of it.