The Cyber Road Less Traveled

Jun 01, 2000 9:30 PM  By

High-touch, low-tech approach helps CommonReader.com stand out in a crowded field of online booksellers

The charming, intimate, literary bookstore is decreasing in number around the country, driven out of the market by superstore chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders. The story of poor Meg Ryan closing her mother’s children’s bookstore under the crush of Tom Hanks’s mega-discount store in the film You’ve Got Mail was as much a study in retailing reality as a romantic comedy. But at least one online bookseller thinks the literary mom-and-pop shop may have found a viable new home in cyberspace.

A Common Reader, in Pleasantville, NY, has been selling reissues of out-of-print books, literary imports, and hard-to-find titles by esteemed but lesser-known authors via direct mail since 1986. The company, which also publishes books under its own imprint, The Akadine Press, hung its shingle on the Web in 1997 to offer existing customers a virtual venue to browse and order (www.commonreader.com).

Rather than squash a Website like CommonReader.com, which took in a total of 3,000 orders in the first quarter of this year, cyberspace superstores like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble’s b&n.com may actually be traffic drivers. Having predisposed the literary customer to buy books electronically, the giant booksellers, says A Common Reader president and publisher Jim Mustich, have actually created a hunger among bookbuyers eager to recapture the experience of the small, enlightened corner bookstore.

“Amazon makes things easier and harder,” Mustich says. “It’s converting people to buying books in an alternative way, and that creates a great pool of new buyers for us. So, we’re confident that if we can get into their attention range, some will really like what we do.”

Already, many have. CommonReader.com does minimal advertising either online or offline. Its catalog (mailed every three weeks to a housefile of 100,000-150,000) contains only a small mention of the site. Still, word of mouth has already created a new online audience for the $7.5 million company. About 30% of the site’s revenue, says Mustich, originates from booklovers who’ve never ordered from the company before.

Those who stumble onto the site find warm shelter in an e-commerce book storm. With its plenitude of first-person articles and discourses, written primarily by Mustich and his staff, the Website evokes the best qualities of the literary bookshop, the kind of place where the erudite proprietor knew the title of every book ever written by your favorite obscure author and had once been to a party where someone spilled wine all over Ernest Hemingway. Readers who feel under-served or cheated by the expansion of the big chains can replicate that fading brick-and-mortar experience online at CommonReader.com, where content is king.

“Our customer is someone for whom books are a part of his or her extended family – and not just figuratively,” Mustich says. “These are people who have shelves of books that are so familiar and significant in their lives that part of the definition of themselves is tied to those books.”

CommonReader.com’s approach is high-touch, low-tech. The site recreates the intimacy of a literary bookstore not by means of technical wizardry – there’s no flashy animation or streaming media or even Java applets. Rather, it attracts by its singular selections and its content. In a typical visit, readers can linger over “Reader’s Diary,” Mustich’s cultivated weekly column; or chew on the “Word of the Day”; or sample excerpts of tempting new volumes (see sidebar). They can browse virtual shelves of such eclectic selections as The Last Will & Testament of an Extremely Distinguished Dog, by the playwright Eugene O’Neill, and Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, by Baseball Hall of Famer Leroy (Satchel) Paige.

Eloquent discourse – in a voice simultaneously genial and adroit, somewhat high-brow but never pretentious – is the cornerstone of the site. “It will, I pray, be years before I have to think about a `last will and testament’ of my own distinguished and dearly loved dog,” writes the reviewer of the O’Neill book. “Which is not to say, however, that I wasn’t getting all choked up while reading this touching and attractive collaboration.”

Small and select
Like a small-town proprietor, Mustich so far has preferred to keep his site small and inclusive. A Website redesign last September, for instance, primarily focused on improving the company’s search mechanisms, rather than pumping up new business. According to Mustich, the site was originally conceived to provide an alternative ordering mechanism for the catalog’s customers, rather than to draw in hoards of new customers or grow the business. Only this year will the company begin investigating building Web traffic through advertising.

At this point, Web-based sales are only about 15% of the company’s overall sales. Revenue remained flat last year as the company reduced its catalog prospecting (by half last year and by another third this year) in favor of making Website improvements. A portion of those savings will also help fund its four-year-old Akadine Press.

“We’re much more editorial-driven than sales- or revenue-driven,” Mustich says, referring to the company’s penchant for offering quality books. We aren’t trying to be a mass-market business. That’s not how we want to spend our days. We are looking for real booklovers who we can speak to in the language that they understand and appreciate. I don’t pretend that we’re not interested in revenue, but we have a sense of what we want to do and the materials we want to traffic in, and we thought the Web could allow us to do that more effectively than in print.”

The site is high-touch, low-tech on the back-end as well. Book descriptions and pricing data are stored in Sleepycat Software Inc.’s Berkeley Database, an open-source embedded database system. Unlike a relational database such as Oracle, the Berkeley database can’t perform complex queries and data analysis. However, the database is free, supports transaction processing, and works out of the box with the Perl scripting language. CommonReader.com, says George Ott, director of information technology, has used Perl to develop its online applications, such as the shopping cart.

Working with a team of three – a development manager, a technology coordinator, and a managing editor – Ott’s focus has been on making the site easy to use. In the site’s latest iteration, the team concentrated on enhancing the search capabilities and creating fluid links among its inventory of 7,000 SKUs.

“The site should be convenient, intuitive, and operate at the rhythm and pace of the user,” Ott says. “So, we prefer a site without a lot of bells and whistles. For example, when we originally devised the search engine, we thought people would need to define what they were looking for – the title or the author. But it turned out, they just wanted to key in what was on their mind; they didn’t want to be pigeonholed. Some use titles, some authors, and some keywords. Now they can just enter what they want.”

The newly designed site also enables customers to order by product number, a feature Ott had not initially anticipated would be desirable. “We had thought they would search, look at some write-ups, and place their order,” he explains. “But some customers are just ordering from the catalog and don’t want to go through all the write-ups. So now there’s a page where they can order by product number, and 30% of our Web buyers are using that page.”

Currently, orders from the Website come into the company’s computers in real-time from the host server (maintained by UUNet, in Virginia) via encrypted e-mails, which are then de-encrypted and entered manually into the catalog order-entry and fulfillment system. While manual input would stagger a huge site like Amazon.com, Ott says CommonReader.com can handle the effort. The delay between order placementand inventory look-up, he says, is about an hour, but it’s rare that a book ordered isn’t in stock. The system thus enables the company to deliver on its policy of 24-hour shipment.

CommonReader.com hasn’t automated order input, Ott says, because the Web front end ties directly to the catalog’s back-end fulfillment systems, written in 15-year-old legacy code. “We didn’t want to disturb that,” he says. And, he adds, “There’s something to be said for human intervention. I like the way we do it here. To be able to look at an order and determine how best to fulfill it is something that a machine can’t figure out.”

Given the site’s growth trends so far, Mustich expects the Web to account for about 25% of sales by the end of this year, especially as A Common Reader moves to publicize the site more. Even so, Ott has no plans to make dramatic changes to the Web infrastructure. “Our system recognizes existing customers and facilitates their orders. We make sure that they get their orders. We’re satisfied with the speed and performance. I don’t know that we want or need to do much more.”

In the future, though, Ott says CommonReader.com will update its technology on the marketing end. Ott is now looking to add a relational database to improve the site’s ability to analyze site activity and sales data from a variety of viewpoints. With a relational database, Ott’s team will be able to pose queries such as, “How long are readers spending at `Reader’s Diary’ page?” or “How many people who looked at `Reader’s Diary’ also placed an order?”

Don’t expect, though, that CommonReader.com will lose its low-tech touch. “We sell books,” says Ott. “And a book isn’t a high-tech thing. Reading is personal and very special; the physical holding of a book is special. Our customers share the same love of books that we have, and I don’t know if we want to turn that into a high-tech thing.”


A Common Reader’s original online bookstore, established circa 1997, was “rather unambitious,” says Jim Mustich, president and publisher of the Pleasantville, NY, catalog company. It duplicated the copy in the catalog, had limited search capabilities, and existed mainly as an alternate order mechanism for the catalog’s enthusiasts.

CommonReader.com’s September 1999 relaunch, however, is reader-friendly, with an enhanced search engine, improved technology, and original content. Each new feature serves the aim of creating online the literary bookshops disappearing from the national landscape. To that end, content is king, written by Mustich and his staff – booklovers all – for bookish customers.

The site’s search function now allows you to search by keyword, browse by subject (just as if you were scanning the shelves of a musty shop), find editor’s picks of the year’s best reading (as if you were conversing with the shop’s learned owner), or peruse imported titles, new editions, or books on sale (as if you’d bumped into a special display in the shop’s front window).

The search engine minimizes pointing and clicking and makes plumbing the depths of the site’s 7,000 SKUs a pleasant adventure, especially for cybercustomers unfamiliar with A Common Reader’s unique inventory. But it’s the original columns that booklovers will really savor, including the “Word of the Day” column; daily excerpts from such curious volumes as Cuckoo, four collections of letters to The London Times; and “Reader’s Diary,” a weekly rumination on the profound pleasures of reading.

“The excitement of real imaginative work greets me as I take the plunge into Derek Walcott’s book-length poem `Tiepolo’s Hound,’” writes Mustich in a recent “Reader’s Diary” column. “…It’s been too long since I’ve let a poet’s language mine the vein of my own literary resources, and the labor feels both tantalizing and luxurious.”

The “Word of the Day” column excerpts various titles on language, such as John Ciardi’s A Browser’s Dictionary. On the expression “Waterloo,” for example, meaning “a total and final downfall,” deriving from Napoleon’s defeat by Wellingtonin that Belgian town, Ciardi asks, “Why has English chosen the idiom as if from Napoleon’s view?” Noting that Waterloo was Wellington’s greatest victory, he adds, “Had it chosen the Wellingtonian view, the idiom might as readily have meant `to triumph gloriously….’”

With that in mind, it seems A Common Reader has quite the Waterloo in its uncommon Website.