Interview with Piet Wesselman, of Antiqbook


PIET WESSELMAN

PIET WESSELMAN

Q: Piet, how and when did you originally get into the book business?

As a high school dropout I wanted to become either a bookseller or a journalist. Bookseller was easiest. I worked in a (new books) bookshop and with a publisher from age 17 to 23. But during these years I got interested in academic matters while reading a lot of the books I handled, so I got serious and after my army service moved to Amsterdam, finished school in evening classes and went to the University to study social psychology. And stayed there as a teacher, first in group psychology, and from there it was a small step to families and social development of children. In the end I found myself researching “turn taking behavior in mother-child dyads’ play in 9-month-old prematurely born infants”. You can learn a lot from things like these, but I found it too restricted. I guess I have a “bookseller’s mind”: I like it better to know something about everything than to know all about a little. So I loved teaching, but loathed research. And always, and increasingly, thought of myself as a lost bookseller…

Still – family to feed, missing the necessary knowledge and experience or investment money – I held on to the job until almost 50. Then again I got serious, went for a bookseller’s diploma but still did not have any money to invest, and antiquarian and used books came to mind, because in that area I could start small.

Q: What has been the course of your career as a bookseller, i.e., a bricks & mortar shop, book fairs, paper catalogs, etc.? When did you go online, and how?

First I tried to learn by visiting auctions, bookshops, talking to book dealers, buying books, reading books on the trade and my own interests: literature and botany. Spent months on collecting and reading Pound and Pessoa, or books on cactuses or mesembryanthemums, and studying bibliographies.

Q: What are/were your specialties?

And decided to specialize in these two. Poetry in Dutch is my favorite. Not that you can sell it but some of it is among the best 20th century poetry in the world. And ‘high’ literature, Nobel prize class (or what I see as worthy of a Nobel prize), in original languages which I try to read…

When I had enough books and knowledge to think I could start selling the Internet was just beginning here. This was before the World Wide Web existed. I decided that it was the most cost effective way to sell books, so I started to enter them in my self-made database program to be able to publish catalogs in mailing lists and news groups. Luckily the WWW developed, which made things a lot easier.

Q: How does being a bookseller in your country differ from how you see U.S. book dealers operating?

Holland has nearly 1,000 used and antiquarian book dealers with a population of 16 million, so I guess this will be the first difference. General used books are for sale in almost every little town, and specialists and antiquarian book dealers are in all of our larger towns and cities. A popular guide to used bookshops counts 117 book dealers in Amsterdam (pop. 700,000). And book fairs, both outdoor and indoors, are very frequent here too.

Another difference is that we hardly have a mail order tradition like in the US. This is why the book trade on the Internet is developing slowly here; people are used to getting their books around the corner and are not accustomed to ordering them through the mail. But the more special the book the farther you have to go to find it, so in this situation it is best to specialize when you want to make a start. Another difference: there are few book collectors who consider their collection a financial investment. We do not have the first editions frenzy you know in the U.S., and the sanctity of the dust jacket is not as enormous as in your country.

Q: What originally gave you the idea of starting an online book database?

We started Antiqbook originally just for Dutch booksellers, but were soon discovered by booksellers from other countries, and as the number of web catalogs rose we realized that we had to proceed to a more comprehensive way to present the books.

Q: And how did you go about setting it up?

I just started. Read a manual on web databases and started making a website. At first it was a small program on an ISP’s database. My skills grew with the database. And it’s not rocket science…

Q: Did you have a background in computers? Or databases?

Not at all, I just knew everything about babies… I did however write some computer programs I needed for research and so I was not afraid to pick up a book and find out what I needed to know.

Q: Antiqbook is a wonderful service–easy to use, wonderful customer service from you for the listing dealers. Do you still have time to sell books, or does Antiqbook now take all your time? And how many people are required to keep it going? How much time?

I haven’t sold a book for two years now 🙁 I am still buying and collecting, not really sure what to do with them later on. We’ll see. Antiqbook takes more than a normal working day. David Meesters, my Antiqbook partner, and I split the job: I do the database, he does everything else. We have part time assistance from two secretaries who do advertising, PR, and part of the database maintenance. For technical matters and some of the programming we hire people when needed, and financial administration is outfarmed, as the modern jargon has it.

Q: What are your plans for the future, as far as Antiqbook and the book business?

Antiqbook has to grow in size somewhat to stay viable, but I don’t like the idea of having an office, and personnel. We now all have our office at home and stay in touch by email, phone or chat programs.

We like to think of our niche as the European book market and ‘better books’. I am not sure whether we will be able to realize this exactly. If anywhere, it is on the net where the market dictates in part which course you have to take. We have also come to realize that contrary to the expectations of some years ago Internet is not creating one global market, but is still very much a conglomerate of local markets. For example, you can hardly sell American books in France or Germany, or books in German or French to many people outside these language areas. There are exceptions, of course, notably in antiquarian and scientific books. We are thinking of ways to adapt to this situation. We are well situated at small distances from the UK, France and Germany, and we can communicate in their languages. So we will diversify online.

Q: Do you see more and more U.S. business coming through Antiqbook?

Antiqbook is now large enough so we don’t have to rely too much on the meta-search programs. There is something like a critical mass and I think we have crossed that point. Direct sales from the Antiqbook site are about 3/4 of total sales, and our visitors are from all parts of the world, including many from the U.S. There is also a steady rise in the number of American book dealers, but…

Q: Have the recent events in the U.S. (World Trade Center and anthrax) affected your business much?

Sure. I have the impression that just the last few weeks of November the trade is getting back to its normal course again, but from mid-September onwards sales from and to the U.S. are very much down. When we plot our sales figures you can trace all major events, like the first anthrax attacks or the Afghan war. There are also booksellers whose sales have suffered so much that they have had to cut their costs and have had to leave Antiqbook. We hope this is a temporary thing and try to make it easier on them to bridge this difficult time.

Q: Any tidbits for us about plans you have for improvements or innovations for Antiqbook?

Yes, there is a lot going on just now. We bought two new servers with multi-processors, multi-hard disks, as multi as can be, for speed and a great expansion of our database services. I am working on a redesign of the database and search programs, to allow for more precise queries, more selections (country, possibly languages, even bookseller association) and full text search.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about you, personally? Many of us have dealt with you professionally, and I think we’d all like to get to know you more personally.

Well, you have a good impression on what my daily life is like these days. Maybe the things I would like to do more if there was enough time tell something about me? My days would be filled with jazz, art, and poetry: I like to listen to the great jazz of figures like John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk: they are the greatest musical geniuses. I love 20th century art, especially modernist art and abstract expressionism, and many post-war American painters. I’d like to expand my collection of bilingual poetry editions, and just read, look and listen. Cooking is one of the other arts I admire and try to imitate; at this time Italian and Chinese food are my favorites. And I would definitely pick up practicing calligraphy again, to improve my hand but also for the pleasure of the concentrated work.

Interview by Shirley Bryant.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website