In case you've been living under a rock—and it would have to have been a big rock—for the last decade or so, here's some news: Technology has vastly changed bookselling as a whole, and the trade in bargain books in particular. The biggest changes have been wrought by online retailing. Travis Nelson, departmental manager at Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore in Salt Lake City, where used and bargain books dominate, says, "I've been here at the store for about 10 years, and during that time we made our entrance to listing online. It's been quite a revolution. Today about 10% of our revenue comes from online sales."

Sam Weller's lists bargain books on its own Web site, But Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis not only sells bargain books on its own site (, but also retails through third-party sites, such as Amazon (, AbeBooks ( and Alibris (

This makes inventory and the software for listing titles online—both on its own site and on other sites—"rather complicated," admits owner Denny Magers.

A freelance consultant has built the store a system that handles all these potential outlets at once. In other words, if the sole copy of a book is sold in the store, the book is not only removed from the brick-and-mortar store inventory, but from listings on the other Web sites as well. The same software allows for real-time adjustments to prices.

Another technological advance, the store's computerized inventory system, represents a big improvement as well. Says Magers, "We use our inventory system for buying, and we access our own inventory much more frequently than we used to. Now when we buy something we quickly take a look at our sales history and our inventory on hand or not on hand, and we can get some comparison information from other databases. We used to buy things we thought we needed, and now we know for sure that we don't want it or we do want it. Before all this technology, a lot of it was done by memory and seat of the pants, so to speak. Now I don't trust my memory or the seat of my pants."

Laurie Greer, remainder buyer at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., says the store's Web site,, has a "Sale Books" link, which takes users to a selection of books and an explanation of what remainders are, exactly. The store's regular Tuesday e-mail also includes a section on bargain books.

Greer continues, "We focus on books that are popular or have something to do with events coming up or things in the news that week, or we just have a lot of copies. If it's a novel I liked I'll put it in and include a synopsis to whet their appetite. Half of a Yellow Sun was one of last week's features, and that did really well. I mentioned in my description that it won the Orange [Broadband] Prize, and that triggered people's memories. Visuals help, too. For Half of a Yellow Sun we had the British paperback edition, so people might not have recognized the jacket, but the Web site let them know what to look for visually."

"We have a link to click on our Web site [] for bargain books, but we really don't go beyond that," reports Roger Pantano, buyer at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif. Still, says Pantano, even that effort serves to raise the profile of bargain books at the store, alerting customers to their existence—what he calls the "oh-look-there-are-eight-great-books-maybe-there-are-more" effect. Pantano is careful, however, to list titles only when the store has a substantial number of copies (when pressed for a number, he says simply, "enough"), as he believes that if customers are drawn in by particular titles and then find them sold out, they are turned off.

Brad Jonas, CIROBE cofounder and president of Powell's Books Wholesale in Chicago, points out that the success of use of the Internet for a bookseller is all about "economy of scale." He lists books on several different Web sites and tracks inventory electronically. The next issue to be tackled with electronic sales, says Jonas, is "how to turn the buyer from an individual, isolated sale into a long-term customer. As retailers we all understood how to do that. Someone came in every Friday and you started to know what they were interested in and you could hand-sell, but how do you hand-sell electronically?"

Steve Ross, bargain books buyer at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, Calif., also features bargain books in the store's quarterly e-mail newsletter and its category newsletters (mystery, etc.) when appropriate. Ross errs on the side of larger quantities, though, and will feature only books that can be obtained in 50-copy lots or more.

He also finds that the strategy doesn't work as well for individual titles as it does for groups of books. For example, one recent success was the sale of a large batch of graphic novels that came from Symposium Books Wholesale. "We put in the newsletter that we had a table full of three dozen different graphic novels with characters people know, like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, and they did come in for that. But if I get an oddball 17 copies of a title, I wouldn't bother to put that in the newsletter."

At the Strand Bookstore in New York City, owner Nancy Bass has seen the store's "books by the foot" program grow via its Web site, (The site accounts for close to 27% of the store's sales.) Orders for "books by the foot," many of them from hoteliers and interior decorators, come in from all over the country, Bass reports, including from consumers who were unfamiliar with the Strand until they spotted its Web site.

How does Mitchell Kaplan, who owns three Books & Books stores in Florida (and is soon to open a fourth in the Cayman Islands), use technology to sell bargain books? By using technology to buy them judiciously. Technology has changed the other end of the business, too, altering the way that retailers acquire bargain books, which in turn is affecting the way they are sold. Kaplan says, "Bargain book wholesalers are sending out lists of the books that they have, and that's become a very big difference in the way that it's done. It used to be a rep would come, and you'd sit down with dust jackets for all the books and go through all of what they had. Now we're having things sent as regularly as once every couple of weeks, and some bargain book places have Web sites you can go to. It's a more considerate way of looking at the book."

Ross of Vroman's, for one, feels a kind of nostalgia for those pre-Internet, more one-on-one days, saying, "One thing I would like to go on record as saying is that a lot of the companies have dropped their whole rep program, and there's only one we deal with that doesn't have a Web presence but they have a rep who brings the dust jackets: Roy P. Jensen. They still do it old-school style, and it really makes a difference."

And some retailers don't use technology at all. The Tattered Cover in Denver is no Luddite holdout. The store has a useful Web site (, which lists events and award winners, among other information. But as Neil Strandberg, manager of operations, puts it, the answer to how the store uses technology to sell bargain books is "starkly simple: we don't."

Strandberg continues, "We've had a general desire to post our remainders to the Internet, of course, but have not been able to devote the resources necessary to either (a) build our own site or (b) post to a host like or (c) further split the margin with a third-party service. So, mostly satisfied with the way bargain performs in-store, we've prioritized myriad other items."

The Tattered Cover remains part of a shrinking minority, however. Most retailers recognize technology as, in the words of Magers of Magers and Quinn, "a two-edged sword," with access to a pool of nationwide customers who previously would have remained out of reach gained in exchange for a loss in brick-and-mortar business to other online retailers. But there's no going back, says Magers: These days, "if you don't have the ability to sell via the Internet, you're going to lose out."