Website Review: Thriftbooks

Thriftbooks

Screen capture of homepage, accessed 3/28/19

I generally am an advocate of brick and mortar bookstores, as you may know from following this blog. Where possible, I like to buy new books, which helps support these stores and also the authors, who don’t receive royalties on used books, and rarely on remaindered ones. Brick and mortar stores may not always offer the best bargains, but they enrich the fabric of a community and provide employment and local taxes.

At the same time, buying new books can be expensive. Three hardbacks may cost $100 or more at today’s prices. The book has to be one I want to keep to justify that price. Mass market paperbacks are still generally under $10, and quality paperbacks $15-20 or more, but even those prices add up quickly. Used booksellers can often help take a bite out of this cost, but remember that neither publisher nor author are benefiting from your purchase. One upside–you are recycling!

The other issue is that there are often particular editions you might look for to complete a set, or there are books that are out of print. Here, online booksellers such as AbeBooks or Alibris are good alternatives to that mammoth online bookseller. Recently at the Bob on Books Facebook Page (you are welcome to like us!) I asked people about their experiences of buying used books online and discovered I must be the last person on the planet not to know about Thriftbooks. One person wrote, “Thriftbooks is the bees knees.” With such an enthusiastic endorsement, I could not fail to take a look.

Here’s what I found. The homepage to the website works well to connect one to all the features on the site. There is a search bar that allows you to search by title, author, or ISBN. I found that entering the first part of the author’s name brought up a list that allowed me to search the author’s book quickly. One of the things you will notice is that you are not buying from other booksellers through the site but through Thriftbooks itself. (Thriftbooks also sells through Amazon.)

Just below that is a drop down menu bar that allows you to search by categories, kid’s, young adult, fiction, and collectibles. There is also information about special offers, their phone app (which I haven’t looked at yet), their blog, and information about the company. They’ve expanded from a single warehouse in Washington state in 2004 to warehouses in ten states. They purchase books from charities, which helps the charities, recycle books through sales or sending them to recycling plants, and support various literacy programs, schools, and correctional facility libraries.

They have a sliding banner that features their Thriftbooks deals (an additional 10% off 100,000 titles), a bonus currently on offer for their Reading Rewards program, a feature on women’s books, and a chance to vote in their “novel knockout” program. Below this are featured their bestsellers (all selling from $3.79), trending books, and popular books eligible for their Thriftbooks discount. Between the trending books and the Thriftbook deals is a green bar with links to your orders, your current number of points in your Reading Rewards, and a link to Thriftbook deals.

If you go to the page for any category, you see best sellers, new arrivals, and Thriftbook deals for that category. Under Collectibles, you can see New Arrivals, First Editions, and Signed Books. When you click on a book, you are taken to a page for that book offering various price options for the book depending on hardcover, paperback, mass market paperback, and audio and prices by condition. There is also a link to view all the editions of the book.

It is easy to set up an account, which involves providing your name, email, and a password. Click on the Reading Reward link in your profile to enroll in the Reading Rewards program. It allows you to earn points for each dollar you spend (as well as periodic bonuses depending on how many books you read). When you earn 500 points, you get a free book. Starting out, you get 8 points for each dollar. When you spend more than $100 in a year, you graduate to “Literati,” where you earn 10 points.

So I did try out ordering. I ordered a few James Lee Burke books, and the next couple books in the Wheel of Time series that I haven’t read. It was pretty standard for most websites: shopping cart, provide shipping info, and credit card or Paypal. Standard shipping is free with orders over $10 (within the U.S.). Because they do not do business in my state, they do not charge sales tax (which may be up to you to report). It is supposed to take 4 to 8 business days. We’ll see how it goes. I received an immediate order confirmation via email, as well as a 15% discount coupon code for my next order.

If you want to try them out, here is a link to a 15 percent discount (yes, I do get a discount if you order!). So depending on your budget and book buying needs, you might give them a try.

Summing it all up:

Strengths: Inventory, low prices, rewards program, collectibles, overall ease of navigation and use, and the social responsibility of the company.

Downsides: Not the place to find newly released books. These are used books in most cases. It does not connect you to or support brick and mortar booksellers, used or new, nor authors.

Blue Jacket Books Moving in a Different Direction

IMG_2381

Lawrence Hammar, co-owner of Blue Jacket Books, in one of the many rooms of books in his store.

I saw a post the other day that reflects the challenges of bookselling, particularly if you are based in a small town.

“There are big changes afoot at and in and with Blue Jacket Books about which I wish to inform you. How’s that for a bracing opening?

I’m excited about the future, I am, don’t think that I’m not, but I am forced to go in a different direction so as to make a living.

Here’s why: I love selling retail, I love being your hometown, independent bookseller, but in terms of in-store sales (not on-line, that is), the bookstore operates at a net loss. Very few Xenians buy books here. Sales in-store have for a long time been flat, slow, maybe even declining. The terrible truth is that, the better has the bookstore become, the better the books, the larger the number thereof, the better the organization, etc., the worse have become the in-store sales. Compliments are up, our reputation improves by the day, the oohs and aahs become more vocal, we get Facebook “likes” by the cart-load, but yet very few people actually buy the danged books, especially not from Xenia. Our customers from Xenia are loyal, don’t get me wrong, but they are not many.

We’re doing okay on-line, we’re doing okay with direct orders, too, but I can’t keep working 80 hours a week so as to lose money in-store. We love the building, we love being in Xenia, we get along great with our building occupants and fellow small-business people, but again, few of our customers are from Xenia. $81 Saturdays and $123 First Fridays and the occasional $0 days have left permanent dents in my psyche. I don’t expect the political-economy or the socio-demography of Xenia to change, so I must try something else.

I’ve therefore decided to move in a different direction.”

I had a delightful visit a couple years ago to Blue Jacket Books in Xenia, which is about a 45 minute or so drive from Columbus. I wrote about it here. We had a delightful time with the owner, came away with an armload of books, and intentions of coming back some time. I have to admit wondering how such a wonderful place could make it in a small town.

I have another friend I’ve met online who also puts in long weeks, sells books at conferences, promotes the store online, and barely scrapes by. He knows books and, at the drop of a hat, can probably make ten good recommendations on any subject, after getting to know you. I much prefer that kind of attention to an algorithm, but perhaps I’m in a minority. That big online bookseller makes getting books quick and easy for those who still read. And like the store in Xenia, direct and online sales rather than in-store sales enable him to stay afloat.

So I can see how the move online makes sense for the folks at Blue Jacket. They can probably do better business in fewer hours (an many people who run stores like this are at the stage of life where they want to go slower). The store definitely appeals to a literate crowd. If Xenia, a town of just over 25,000 and the county seat of Greene Country, were a college town, it might sustain a store like this. Nevertheless, I can see how the loss of the store decreases the mix of stores and the richness of its cultural life. I don’t know the answer to this, aside from a broad cultural change in reading habits and habits of mind.

For now, the store is “purging” their inventory, at least through the end of July according to their Facebook page. In a Dayton Daily News story, it sounds like they are trying to sell off 30,000 of the 50,000 books in their inventory to focus on selling Civil War, Americana, academic works and fine art via direct and online sales. Blue Jacket Books is located at 30 S. Detroit Street, Xenia, OH 45385 and their phone is 937-376-3522, if you want to pick up a great bargain during their “purge.” I assume their website will remain the access point for their online business. But the loss of this good place with its various rooms of books on different topics is one more marker on the road to what I think a less intellectually rich and interesting society. But thanks, Lawrence Hammar and Cassandra Lee for making it such a good place for the past ten years. I wish you well as you take Blue Jacket in a different direction!

Bookstore Review: Half Price Books Online

New   Used Books  Textbooks  Music   Movies   Half Price Books

Screenshot of HPB.COM taken 7/12/16

I’ve been a customer of Half Price Books going back into the 1990’s. They have six stores in my city and we’ve been to them all. They are the source of a number of the books, vinyl, and CDs we’ve purchased, and also a place where we’ve sold these items. Recently, I’ve received emails about their online bookstore, HPB.COM, touting a “new” online presence.

This makes sense of some things we’ve seen in their physical stores. It used to be that all you saw on merchandise was a little price sticker. Increasingly, these have been replaced with barcode labels, with adhesive that makes them not easy to remove at times (a subject for a separate post sometime!). Essentially, with the right IT work, this creates the capacity for them to have over 120 warehouses scattered across the country, and to be open to book buyers from everywhere, all the time, and not just those who walk through the door. If Amazon is indeed getting into the brick and mortar book store business, Half Price, one of the more successful brick and mortar sellers, is going after the online market.

So how have they done? Here are some of my impressions as I’ve looked around the website. First of all, when one goes to the home page, you are welcomed to the “new HPB.COM.” As you mouse over this you can “start shopping” immediately or move the banner to the right or left and see other featured promotions going on either online or at their stores, including their current city-wide clearance sales. Clicking on “start shopping” takes you to featured best sellers of the week, new releases, rare finds, staff picks, books made into movies, and a special HPB collection, which has changed at least once already today. You can also scroll down the home page to see boxes featuring bestsellers, various news items about Half Price Books, staff picks, and more.

Across the top of the page is a drop down menu bar allowing you to go to various pages for books, movies and TV, music, textbooks, rare finds, as well as a “gift card” and an “about” page. Each of the first four drop downs provides links to popular categories, customer favorites, and “superbuys” by price. Just below that menu bar is a search box that allows you to search for a particular title or category.

And this is where it gets interesting because it will give you a featured search result and price, usually for a Half Price store somewhere in the country, and then below, a “marketplace” that includes other places where the item is for sale, not only other Half Price outlets, but also other online “third party” sellers. Prices can sometimes be very low, less than $1, depending on the book, but you should be aware that there is a $3.99 shipping fee for each item, plus sales tax if you are in a state where Half Price does business. Even so, it may be possible to find things at a lower price than at other online sellers, but I would compare, and look at user ratings.

One feature I wish the site had that I could not find, even though I searched for my favorite local store, was the capability to find out if the item was at that store. You can if you scroll down a list of all the available items but you will not be taken there directly. What you can do once you locate your local store is find out about events, staff picks, meet the manager, and more, which is a nice feature.

I did not find anything here that made this my “go to” site for buying books online. But I should add the caveat that I really prefer brick and mortar stores in most instances. I would also say that HPB.COM needs to do work on its connection with Google searches. For example, I searched a book I recently received, Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura. It can be found on the HPB.COM site but searching online it does not show up on the first five pages of a Google search, where it is listed with a number of online sellers as well as at the publisher’s site. Even adding the term “Half Price Books” or “HPB” will only take you to the HPB.COM homepage.

My sense is that the industrious and adventuresome will find some good deals here, and hopefully have a good customer experience. I do think it is an interesting site to see what others are writing about books, including current bestsellers or new releases. Having watched Half Price over 20 years, it also wouldn’t surprise me that they continue to enhance this site. But I think I will continue to do my own book-buying at my local favorite HPB, or at a handful of other local or out of town bookstores I order or purchase from, along with using Amazon for something I need quickly. But that reflects as much as anything my love for the serendipity of visiting a store and finding something interesting that you weren’t looking for. But I’ve bookmarked the site–and you never know!

Have you ordered from HPB.COM? What was your experience?