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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.


Maria Bustillos of Popula

Maria Bustillos

Q: What originally gave you the idea of starting an online auction? A: For years, in connection with my work as a housewares designer, I had been haphazardly collecting mid-century fashion and design magazines. In late 1997 I answered a classified ad from a guy in Hollywood who said he had some magazines, and somehow we wound up buying this whole warehouse full of books, originally with a view to opening a prop house. One thing led to another … we learned about the development of e-commerce in the course of our researches, and became very excited about it. My partner is ex of Wall Street, and a very farsighted businessman. It’s all his fault, really. Popula’s offices are still in the original warehouse in Hollywood.

Q: Was the programming expensive and hard to do? How did you approach finding a programmer? How long did it take to get it up and running? A: We were very fortunate in our original developers. They were young guys in Florida who were very hotshot database programmers. I think it would be extremely difficult to assemble the same talent today at any kind of reasonable price.

Our approach was kind of back-to-front. We studied the available enterprise software platforms, decided that ColdFusion would be a good bet for the type of applications we wanted to build, and sought the expertise for that platform, rather than the other way around. None of us are trained programmers, but we had been through software builds of one kind and another. The original build took about six months. Several of us come from art and design backgrounds, so that part we did (and do) in-house, and it saves a lot of time.

In retrospect it was a good approach, though of course we were very lucky that ColdFusion became so widely accepted. Allaire (the company that developed ColdFusion) went public, and was eventually bought by Macromedia. So it’s become a standard platform.

The most important thing is to have developers who can understand what the heck you are talking about, and vice-versa. The second most important thing is the stability and reliability of the technology, on all three fronts: hardware, software and programming. Any kind of commercial website involves innumerable details, welded into a single entity–it’s like an ocean liner, once the thing is in the water it takes a long time to change course, let alone put on the brakes.

Q: Popula is such a fun, quirky site–is that just a reflection of your personality, or did you plan it that way to differentiate it from other auctions? A: Thank you very much for the compliment. Everyone involved in Popula is a collector himself. So the tenor of the site is very much informed by that personal involvement and interest, I think. And then, everybody here values good writing so much that we seem to attract incredible writing talent by sheer animal magnetism, or something. For instance Augustine Funnell, the current Blue Plate Special, wrote such a fantastic interview with himself that I just threw ours out, and used his instead.

Q: Does running Popula take a significant portion of your time and energy? A: Oh, yeah. The Internet never sleeps, eh what? I haven’t had a real vacation for four years, or something.

Q: I note you’re planning a fixed price area–do you plan to have this area be a significant portion of Popula? The reason I’m asking is that I personally feel eBay is missing the boat on their stores with not allowing store results through their regular search function. Amazon has effectively halved the sales from zShops by not having a tab and making it easy for their buyers to find. Will Popula highlight the fixed price items, or at least give them equal billing with auctions?

We see the fixed-price area as being at least as prominent as our auction offerings. It is in the final stages of development now, so if anyone has suggestions on design and navigation, we’re very keen to hear them.

In more general terms, we view Popula as a service for dealers. So our goal is to create as many selling opportunities for dealers as possible. Not just within Popula, but anywhere that dealers are likely to be able to move product, as we used to say in retail. So we don’t just allow links to individual dealer sites on our pages, we encourage them. We don’t feel that monopolistic or exclusionist practices are good for anyone’s business, in the long run. Multiple sites will always be the way to go for independent dealers, in order to maintain an environment of healthy competition. We develop our products with this in mind.

Essentially, our perspective is that if dealers do well on Popula, they’ll continue to list with us, and everyone profits. So we concentrate on making sure that our dealers do well with us.

Q: Another question along these same lines. When Amazon started zShops, it seemed to be the death of their auction program–I don’t know whether by plan, by lack of pushing the auctions, or whether their customer base just prefers fixed price items (pehaps that latter preference, because of their customer base and advertising being slanted towards new books?). Are you planning to keep Popula primarily as an auction site, equally auction and fixed price, or an eventual slant toward fixed price? A: Popula’s focus is and will remain one-of-a-kind rather than mass-market stuff, and will develop based on market forces affecting that niche. Though no one really knows exactly how this area of e-commerce is going to develop over time, it seems clear so far that the most effective retail strategy from the dealer’s point of view is a blend of auction and fixed-price sales.

Q: Do you look at Popula as being a long term operation? In other words, whether or not Popula grows steadily, are you committed to having it in its present format (quirkiness and all) on a long term basis? A: Yes.

Q: Would you change Popula’s format if it did mean substantial rapid growth? In other words, if eBay’s increasing alienation of sellers pushed them into finding other venues and it meant Popula could attract more of these sellers (and consequently, more buyers) by changing to a more eBay-like format, would you do it–or do you prefer having a smaller site that can reflect your personality and values more than growth (I’m not saying rapid growth is always better, by any means)? A: Again, the focus of Popula is one-of-a-kind stuff–vintage, rare, oop etc. Popula was (and is being) designed to serve this particular group of dealers and collectors. So anything that would tamper with that, we have resisted. That said, our goal is to grow Popula, on its own terms, into an absolutely immense venue. Another way to put it is that we’re very ambitious, but not at the cost of our original vision.

Q: What does Popula mean to you? How does it satisfy you being involved with it? A: I believe that the Internet is for the empowerment of individuals. Popula’s mission is to help ensure that the Internet fulfills its original promise of leveling the playing field, so that small businesses can compete effectively with bigger ones. Our goal is to serve as a pure conduit between like-minded individuals; to encourage and foster contact, the transaction of business and the exchange of information. I am very committed to that, personally committed.

To put it another way, we’re not against big business per se, but we are against big business reducing in any way the ability of individuals to have access, to communicate or to do business privately.

Q: In your own words, what’s the image you are projecting and want to project about Popula? Popula is a place where dealers and collectors of rare goods can meet freely to transact business and exchange information. Popula’s focus on vintage, out of print and rare merchandise creates a fun atmosphere that is as much about respect for the past as it is about doing business. It has become a relaxed, discerning environment, full of the most fantastic freaks and autodidacts and geniuses. What do I want to project, I don’t know, it’s kind of a like a cross between a library, a cocktail bar and a casino.

Thank you, Maria!

Interview by Shirley Bryant.


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