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Tales Of The Trade

Rome News-Tribune (Newspaper) - 5/29/2005 by Andy Johns
Two Berry College graduates have combined their love of reading, business sense and Internet skills to create a nationwide book swap that they say could rival eBay and Amazon.

"We just took the neighborhood book club and expanded it to the entire United States," said co-founder of the site Richard Pickering, a 1984 Berry graduate.

Paperbackswap.com enables members all over the United States to search for paperback books, request a book and receive it in the mail, free of charge. Members first list at least nine of their used paperbacks on the site for other members. When a member requests one of the books, the sender prints off the book wrapper, slaps on the $1.48 postage and drops it in their mailbox.

The site contains no ads or marketing gimmicks. Pickering said that the site is completely free, except postage, and there is no spam e-mail. Pickering and Robert Swarthout do plan on adding a $10 to $20 annual membership fee within the next year, in order to offset the cost of servers and the site upkeep.

"That makes us one of the good guys on the Internet," Pickering said. "The toughest thing for us is getting people to believe it."

"Maybe we will put a link on the page that says 'Fine Print' and it will take them to a blank screen," said Swarthout, a 2004 Berry graduate.

The site currently has about 14,000 unique titles listed.

"If you go to a big Barnes & Noble, they don't even have that many," Pickering said.

"Hey look, we're little and we can do this, too," Pickering said. "eBay and Amazon — watch out."

Pickering said that the idea for the site evolved from his business travels. He said that on the planes, he had plenty of time to read, but he didn't want to pay airport terminal prices for books. As he watched his shelves fill up with books, he wished for a cheaper alternative to get new books and a good way to get rid of his old paperbacks. After talking with Swarthout while serving as a guest speaker at Berry, the idea began to take form.

Swarthout said that he learned to operate a book swap from designing the online version of the Student Government Association's book swap at Berry.

Another inspiration for the site came from within Pickering's own family. He said his father uses a wheelchair and shares his love for reading. The site allows his father, and many other disabled members, to be able to browse a large used book inventory and order and receive books from home.

"People say that they got a book in the mail and it puts a smile on their face," Swarthout said. "We touched thousands of people across the country."

So far, the club does not have any advertising and relies purely on members' referrals to spread the word. "Taking care of our customers will do the advertising for us," Swarthout said.

The members agree. Linda Hoyt of Adairsville said that she enjoys the site so much, she got her sister involved. She said she used to have to travel 60 miles to Chattanooga to find a good used bookstore.

"When you take them back to the book store, you hardly get anything for them," Hoyt said.

Hoyt said that though the site founders plan to start charging a $10 to $20 fee, that would not keep her away.

"If they keep the volume of books there, it won't deter me, because I would spend that much on gas going to Chattanooga," she said.

"We've made some great friends all across the country, and we will probably never meet them face to face," Pickering said.

Chip Hall of Lindale said that he and his wife are frequent sellers on Ebay's subsidiary half.com. While he said that he will continue to use half.com, he has listed about 30 books on paperbackswap.com and has received about 12 books.

"They're amazingly conscientious," Hall said. "Their customer service is above and beyond half.com."

Hall said that in one instance, he e-mailed a question to the site when he had trouble listing a book. Within an hour, he got a call from Swarthout talking him through the process. Hall said that was surprising. "It's not like me posting that book made them any more money," he said.

Still, Hall is doubtful that the small site can topple a giant. "I don't think they will be another eBay or anything like that, but I think there is definitely a market for people who want to trade paperbacks for free," he said.

As far as the future of the site goes, Pickering and Swarthout say that they will continue to listen to the club's members to decide which direction to go. According to Pickering, some members have suggested expanding the club to feature textbooks, hardbacks, DVDs and compact discs. Legal hurdles as well as logistic problems may limit the expansion according to Pickering, but the founders are already preparing to be able to effectively trade hardbacks.