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The IOBA Standard is the journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association and covers the book world, with a special focus on the online used, out-of-print, and collectible bookselling markets.


Bar codes in the Used-Book Business

With all the financial pressures on Internet booksellers, from declining prices to shipping reimbursements which don’t quite cover the actual postage, it’s become more important than ever to be efficient. This is true even if you are a one-person shop, but even more so if you have paid employees. You can’t pay someone for fifteen minutes to ship one ten-dollar book and still make a profit. In my shop, much of the increase in efficiency has revolved around the use of bar codes.

Bar codes came into our lives at The Book Den when I bought new inventory software by Anthology for the store. Along with the software came a Symbol Hotshot hand-held scanner and a rather expensive ($750) thermal label printer by Cognitive. I since found similar printers for amazingly low prices on eBay. The printer is quiet and amazingly fast and the scanner made ringing sales up at the register much easier, especially for younger staff who aren’t particularly adept at the number pad on the keyboard.

There’s nothing particularly mysterious about what bar code readers do; they just decode the characters represented by the barcode and input them into your computer program as if you had typed the characters from the keyboard. In fact, most bar code scanners plug in between the keyboard and the computer.

The labels produced by my software contain just the characters to represent the stock number of that book; there are no extra characters or codes. But there are various coding schemes for the barcodes found on manufactured products. For booksellers, the relevant one is Bookland EAN. These are found on the back covers of trade books and on the inside front cover of mass market paperbacks. You can recognize them since they all start with the numbers “978.” Almost all modern barcode scanners can decode these codes and return the ISBN, but sometimes it’s a feature you have to turn on when configuring the scanner.

As helpful as barcode scanning is at the cash register, it really helps when doing inventory. The first inventory we took after getting all of our books bar coded went very quickly. We set up a computer at a central table and hired a bunch of strong young people to bring the books to the table a shelf at a time. We scanned them into a big long dBase file, which was used to update the on-hand field in the Anthology database.

When we started selling books on-line, I quickly realized that the really time-consuming part of filling Internet orders was just finding the books. Is that biography of Elizabeth the First in the Biography section or in English History? Anthology has a “BIN” field for the physical location of the book but we had never used it. So, before taking inventory again, every shelf got a barcode label identifying it.

By now I had realized what a bottleneck it was to only have one scanner during inventory, so I bought a whole lot of Worthington barcode scanning wands on eBay. These aren’t quite as quick or as easy to use as the hand-held pistol type scanners – you have to drag the wand over the label – but they were cheap (average cost twenty-five dollars). This time our dBase file had two fields, one for the ISBN and one for the BIN code. By the end of this inventory, we knew exactly where every book was.

Having accomplished this feat, the data obviously needs to be maintained. We need to track books as they get shelved or are moved around the store. For this, we acquired our third generation of scanners. I had a retired Handspring Visor PDA lying around: it became redundant when my new cell phone included a Palm PDA in it. (Yes, I’m a bit of a gadget nut.) The Handspring PDAs have a slot in the back into which one can insert various add-ons. And Symbol makes a barcode scanner to fit this slot. (They also now make complete Palm OS PDAs with scanners built in.) So now our PDA is equipped with a scanner and database software by Tracer (a deal at $17.95). As we shelve books, we scan the price label and scan the barcode on the shelf. This data gets downloaded into a computer and updates the BIN field in our inventory.

This is all very useful for those of us with brick and mortar stores, but what about Internet-only booksellers? The advent of ISBN look-up through such programs as Homebase and Readerware means that populating the fields of a book record can be very quickly accomplished. And using a bar code scanner lets you input the ISBN very quickly and accurately, saving you several seconds to be used in correcting the inevitable errors in the look-up data. If you look up books on ABE or Amazon for price-comparison, you can scan the ISBN right into the search field on the Internet. Likewise you can scan the ISBN into your invoicing program when you ship. We buy a database on CD-ROM from Baker and Taylor, the new book distributor. Anthology will make new stock records by importing data from the CD. I’ve written another little program that makes custom used-book records from the same data. The bar code scanner makes the process incredibly quick. Scan the ISBN into the program and two seconds later we have a new stock record.

Some other barcode tricks: Do you sell a lot of an item, and you’d really rather not stick a barcode on every one? Put one barcode label on your monitor or the countertop. We do it for Book Den coffee mugs and 30-cent souvenir postcards. I learned this from my local hardware store. Likewise, if there’s a string of commands you type often, you can get an alphabet of barcode characters (Worthington has one on their web site) and then tape the correct string of characters to your desk. Since my inventory software will print labels, I cheat and make a stock record with the correct string in the ISBN field, print out the label and then delete the stock record. I’ve done the same with really long, elaborate passwords that I rarely use. I just keep a barcode label of the password in my wallet.

Something I’ve thought about but haven’t done: When at book sales, I often find myself wondering whether I need a certain book. Do I have one copy back at the shop, or seven? Or none? And I might wonder how much we last charged for a certain out-of-print book. A little database in a scanner-equipped PDA would let me look such things up. And imagine having a web browser on an Internet-linked PDA. Look books up on Bookfinder or Addall right from the sale!

I once attended a seminar presented by the head used-book buyer for Powell’s Bookstore in Portland. He said Powell’s buys and processes three to five thousand books a day. When they buy large lots of books – the inventory of a closed bookstore, for example – they have a conveyor belt, which passes the books under a scanner. The scanner finds the EAN barcode, and by the time the book reaches the end of the belt, it has been entered into inventory and a price label is sitting there waiting. To me, that represented the ultimate in book-processing efficiency, but the technology seemed way beyond my reach. But, I did just buy a supermarket-style scanner on eBay and I’m working out the software to look up common used books and add them to inventory all in one step. Now, I wonder if I can find a conveyor belt on eBay…

About The Book Den:

The Book Den is, to my knowledge, the oldest used-book store in California. It was founded in Oakland, California, in 1902 and moved to Santa Barbara in February, 1933. You can read about the store’s history at We’ve been on the same block of Anapamu Street, across the street from the Public Library and the Museum of Art, as long as we’ve been in Santa Barbara. We moved from next door into our current 3,600 square foot store in 1990.

We stock between 20,000 and 30,000 general used and antiquarian books on all subjects, with a small selection of new books as well. We started selling on the Internet, on the late, lamented Bibliofind, in 1999 and launched our own web site in 2001. About 30% of sales come from the Internet, somewhat evenly divided between ABE, Alibris, Amazon and our own site, with a small contribution from the ABAA web site.

About Eric Kelley:

Eric Kelley started in bookselling by getting a job at a Brentano’s bookstore in Marin County, California after graduating from UCLA. Five years later, he moved to Santa Barbara with a business partner to buy the Book Den. After four years, he bought his partner’s share of the business. He is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of American, the American Booksellers Association and the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. He’s also, at the moment, President of the Santa Barbara Downtown Organization. He’s been involved in promoting several of the incarnations of the Santa Barbara Book and Author Festival and has published a directory to the Booksellers of Santa Barbara. He lives in a Craftsman Bungalow six blocks from The Book Den with his wife, commercial artist Peggy Lindt, and their dog, Cosmo.

Eric Kelley




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