BOOK BEAT Naples Sun Times March 14-20, 2007
by Philip K. Jason
Remember walking into the neighborhood used book store and browsing the shelves for hours? Perhaps the establishment was also a coffee and dessert shop, with tables scattered about and a couple of chess boards. There was good conversation, a bulletin board for items of local interest, and perhaps a golden retriever sprawled near the doorway. The place was similar to those run by the independent dealers in new books, and many shops combined new and used stock. Such places are vanishing, but customer service can still be had in today’s internet used book trade. Just visit with Bill Wickham.
Bill and his wife moved to Naples in 1990, when she signed up as the administrator at Lely Palms. Bill had been an urban planner, but after a few years in Naples he decided to follow the family business located in Duxbury, Massachusetts and start a used book outlet in Naples. Wickham Books South opened in 1993, and it continues to offer shelves of out of print and rare books at its retail location in the Treasure Island Antique Mall at 950 Central Avenue. Those shelves hold only a small fraction of the 13,000 titles in Bill Wickham’s inventory, all of which are listed online and warehoused in his home. Visits with Bill are by appointment, though sales at Treasure Island can be processed by other merchants who share the mall.
When Bill began, the online dimension of the used book trade was in its infancy. He did most of his business by scouring the pages of AB Weekly, the trade publication, and checking the thousands of wanted items listed by dealers against his inventory. Then Bill would send them quote cards, listing his price, and from there a deal would be made or not. The whole process could take a month before a customer received the book. But from the very beginning, Bill entered his stock into a computer file, and as the internet part of the business burgeoned, Bill was ready. Now, those 13,000 books available through Wickham Books South are computer searchable. 80-90 percent of Bill’s sales come from his internet presence, and about 15 percent of those sales are shipped overseas.
Like others in this business, Bill offers his inventory through online dealer networks. As a member-subscriber to biblio.com and abebooks.com, Bill makes his books available to shoppers who plug a title into a search box. If he has that book, the shopper will find out the condition and the price along with the terms of sale – and also the condition and price of competitors’ copies. To look only at Bill’s inventory, one clicks on the “Bookstores” tab and then enters Wickham Books South (or searches further by clicking the “W” tab). Now you are shopping in Naples from wherever in the world you connect to the internet. Of course, this service comes at a cost to its members – not only the monthly subscription fee, but also a piece of each transaction made through the listing network.
Bill believes that specialization is not as important as it used to be. While he lists Travel, Florida, and Military as featured categories in his large stock, he doesn’t really think of himself as a specialist – except when he is in Miami. Then Florida titles loom large.
Each November, Bill rents space in the Antiquarian Books Corner at the Miami Book Fair. He enjoys a very profitable weekend, with many shoppers and a relatively small number of dealers. Not only does he sell a good number of books there, but he also plants the seeds for future business with people who walk through, grab a business card, and contact him later.
Even Naples residents first find Bill through the internet. Then they may engage him directly to help them fill their book requests. He doubts, given the economics of the business today, that it pays to have a large, separate store and fixed business hours. Those days of a clean enough, well-enough lighted place to browse, actually heft and examine lovely old books, listen to music, beat your friend at checkers, have some java and a croissant, and catch up on neighborhood gossip are over. The space at Treasure Island Antique Mall allows Bill to maintain a presence in the community and to keep his home a private place. Also, by networking with other dealers at Treasure Island, Bill finds out about estate sales and other sources of inventory.
A seller is first a buyer. For Bill, the excitement is in finding new stock. The fun of detective work and the joy of discovery are key pleasures. In this regard, Bill Wickham is like all booklovers – including those who look to him for their out of print and rare book needs. You can reach him at 774-5519 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club. Send him your book news at email@example.com.