Booknonsense

Untangling the confusion surrounding Left Bank Books' involvement in BookSense.com

It's been a while since Left Banks Books' Philip Barron has touted the benefits of BookSense.com to customers. Barron is the bookseller with the distinctive shaved pate and affable demeanor that has made him one of the comforting fixtures of the Central West End. BookSense.com is the e-commerce brand of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), which back in May of 1999 began placing ads in national magazines and distributing the Booksense logo to independent bookstores across the country. The promise back then was that BookSense.com ("Independent Bookstores for Independent Minds," the slogan goes) would be the Web site, a place where those small, scruffy independents could unite against the evil corporate dot-com horde. Instead of buying from Barnesandnoble.com or Borders.com or -- the Death Star of them all -- Amazon.com, those who care could go online and support their local independents. Go to BookSense.com and type in your ZIP code, and the store nearest you makes the sale. Take that, Jeff Bezos!

However, reflects Barron, "Having mentioned to so many customers, 'We think something really big is going to happen soon,' I haven't mentioned much to customers about BookSense.com for a while. We'll just wait."

Waiting has been what stores such as Left Bank have been doing for the last year, and will do some more, apparently. BookSense.com was to be fully operational in August of last year but, as a result of technical difficulties, was delayed until the holidays, then delayed again until July 5. But that debut has fizzled as well.

"On July 5, we got excited here -- at least I did," says Barron, "because it looked like we were really ready to register and get started adapting our Web site. Then I realized -- I had to ask to find this out -- that other stores would get the play but not us."

Those other stores include the Bookmark in Vincennes, Ind. Why is a bookstore located a full state away being used as an example? Because if you're in St. Louis and order a book from BookSense.com, the Bookmark is getting your business, not your local independent bookseller, Left Bank.

"Ideally, the way it's supposed to work," explains Barron, "is in two ways. One of them is that a customer who wanted to order a book could go directly to (Booksense's) database through our site. It would happen more or less transparently. You could order the book and it would be shipped either to the customer directly or to the bookstore for the customer to pick up. It allows stores like us to make use of the database. They have thousands of stores, ideally, hooked into this one central database.

"Another way it would benefit us would be if someone went directly to BookSense.com to order a book. It would be shipped to you, and it would be credited to the Booksense store nearest you, which -- once we are officially registered with them -- will be us."

The Bookmark is "officially registered" because it did not create its own Web site. "Self-authored sites had to wait a little longer because (Booksense) wasn't ready to deal with self-authored sites," says Barron, "only with sites that were going to use their templates."

So those independents that just waited at the station like a bunch of slackers for the Booksense train to come over the hill -- they're in business. Those booksellers with some initiative, those willing to confront their technofears and create Web sites of their own, those with a degree of independence -- their business is going to Indiana.

Barron tempers his own criticism of BookSense.com. As Left Banks' webmaster, he has some understanding of the complexities involved: "As frustrating as it was, it made sense. If they're creating this for the first time, and trying to get it to work for the first time, then of course it's easier to use stores that are going to use their system and their template. Then 'We'll get around to you holdouts who want your own individualized Web sites.' I can see how they would come first, but we didn't know that. We thought we were all going to be ready to go at the same time.

"I think they could have done a better job of keeping us apprised. If there's any frustration, it comes from not knowing what's going on."

Len Vlahos, director of BookSense.com, sounds a little defensive over the phone when questioned about the status of the e-commerce enterprise. "I can't speak to what Phil thinks," he says. "We think we've done a pretty good job communicating."

But then, according to the thumbnail bio of Vlahos on the Booksense Web site, his motto is "the perfect is the enemy of the good" -- the kind of logic that supposes that the failure is no threat to anybody.

That endearing little bio also says that Vlahos once played with a band called Woofing Cookies and that he "pines for those subdued days of rock-and-roll," which is understandable, considering that the ABA has invested $2 million-$3 million into BookSense.com, and Vlahos is still pushing back the real startup date. "We should have it in the shape we want Oct. 1."

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