For Diane Hess and her family, the saga of the missing surgeon began the day her father lent out his prized 1956 biography of British surgical pioneer John Hunter.
That was 25 years ago. The family never saw the book again.
"It just vanished," recalls Hess, a 38-year-old graphic designer in San Antonio, Texas.
Her father, a San Antonio surgeon who admired Hunter for helping establish the profession three centuries ago, never got over the loss. For years he scoured musty secondhand-book shops across the country looking for a copy of the biography by Garet Rogers. He even traveled to a London museum dedicated to Hunter. No luck.
Then, last fall, Hess stumbled upon Alibris.com, a flashy online purveyor of used, rare and out-of-print books. On a whim, she punched in the title of her father's missing book.
And there it was.
Alibris and a handful of other online services are blowing the dust off the sleepy world of used books, putting once hard-to-find titles at readers' fingertips and changing the way thousands of shop owners around the United States peddle their musty tomes.
"The Internet has been a boon to the used-books business," says Susan Siegel, who writes a popular series of guides to used-book stores across the United States and Canada and conducts in-depth surveys of the business.
According to Siegel, the number of used-book sellers in the United States climbed to 7,095 last year, up 21 percent from the previous year. She attributes much of that growth to the Net.
"It's given used books greater visibility and opened up this vast market of people who've never considered buying them before."
The used-books industry is famously eccentric and disorganized. Mom-and-pop dealers remain the heart of the trade, snapping up books from estate sales, flea markets and readers who shoulder them in by the boxful.
But their inventories have remained largely out of reach; often, shop owners themselves lose track of what they have. While bibliophiles and rare-book collectors relish the treasure hunt, casual readers often find it a drag -- or impossible.
Al Stoner, a 39-year-old computer programmer in Tannersville, Pa., spent his entire adulthood searching for Ginn's "Down Cherry Street," a Dick-and-Jane-style reader he owned in the first grade. The book taught him how to read and kept him company while his parents struggled through a divorce. After the breakup, the book got lost in the shuffle, but last year he found a copy online. When it arrived in the mail, he says, "I hugged it. It was a very, very emotional moment."
If not for the Net, Stoner says, "I don't think I would have ever found it."
The big three online used-book services are Alibris, Bibliofind and Advanced Book Exchange (ABE), all of which catalog millions of used books from thousands of dealers across the United States.
Bibliofind and ABE are listing services that charge dealers a flat fee to log their inventories. Each entry typically includes a price, physical description of the book, and contact information for the bookseller. Buyers are responsible for contacting the bookseller via e-mail or phone to close the sale.
Alibris, on the other hand, acts as a middleman, buying volumes from booksellers, repackaging them under its brand and shipping them directly to customers. For this, it tacks on a 20 percent premium to the price.
Services like these have not only made books easier to find but also given booksellers access to a worldwide market of readers.
Clifford Panken struggled for 12 years to establish his Book Rendezvous stores in Baltimore. A few years ago he started listing his inventory with services such as Alibris and Bibliofind. Now 50 percent of his orders come over the Net.
These days he ships 100 books a week to customers in countries as far away as China, Argentina, Japan and England. Panken says he's had to bring in extra staff to help with the cataloging and shipping.
"Every night we're packing books," he says. "It's become a very substantial portion of our business."
Some used-book sellers have closed their nonvirtual doors altogether. The Tiber Book Shop, for years a fixture on the 25th Street book block in Charles Village, closed in August 1998 after watching walk-in traffic slow to a dribble. Today it operates exclusively in cyberspace.
"Things that had been on our shelves for three or five years we can sell in a week," says Karen Erickson, who oversees the store's computer database.
But the marriage of e-commerce with the eccentric used-book business has also sparked a culture clash. At its epicenter, in Emeryville, Calif., is Alibris.
With 100 employees, $55 million in venture capital and a 400,000-square-foot warehouse outside Reno, Nev., Alibris is everything the typical used-book shop is not. Since its launch in in 1998, the company has spent millions to impose order on the archaic industry and generate buzz for books long dead.
"We have already spent more money growing awareness for hard-to-find books than anybody in history," says CEO Martin Manley. "We're really giving new life to old books."
In November, for example, the company launched an ad blitz in publications such as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, USA Today and Gourmet.
The catchy, full-page ads, including one showing a yellowed copy of Betty Crocker's 1973 "New Dinner for Two Cookbook," are geared to nostalgic baby boomers: "May 1, 1986. Passed from grandmother to mother to you. You lose it. Oct. 27, 1999. Find on Alibris and pass on to your daughter."
So far Alibris' strategy seems to be working. In recent months the company has struck deals to supply used and out-of-print books to BarnesandNoble.com and the Ingram Book Group, the largest distributor of new books in the country, supplying 32,000 retail outlets.
But some used-book sellers are worried and have refused to sell their books to the company.
"They're like a tyrannosaurus xex coming through," says Ken Lopez, vice president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America. "Most used-book sellers don't make a cushy living. Some feel that a large, well-funded company coming into their marketplace could hurt them."
Unlike Bibliofind and ABE, Alibris doesn't mention the names of the 1,500 dealers around the country from which it buys books. That has irked some shop owners who enjoy developing relationships with their customers.
Other booksellers worry that if Alibris were to snap up a listing service such as Bibliofind or ABE, independents would be shut out, making it harder for them to sell their books online.
Readers, meanwhile, don't seem to care.
A quarter-century after he lost his book on 18th-century surgeon John Hunter, Diane Hess' father got one under the tree for Christmas last year. Hess says she bought two copies: one to put under the tree and another for herself, just in case her father decided to lend it out again.
Where to look
Searching for an old book? The Internet is the easiest place to find what you're looking for -- but not always the cheapest.
The bargains are still in the store, says Clifford Panken, owner of Book Rendezvous in Baltimore. Like many used-book sellers, he charges a few bucks more for books he peddles online to cover the cost of listing them.
"You pay a premium to find the exact book and have it mailed to your door," he says.
There are still deals online. But the two places you won't find them are Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com, both of which rely on other services -- listed below -- to get their used books, so the markup is heavy.
Your best bets for bargains? Listing services such as Advanced Book Exchange and Bibliofind. Happy hunting.
Advanced Book Exchange (www.abe.com): With 5,900 booksellers and 17 million books, ABE is the largest online listing of used-book sellers.
Alibris (www.alibris.com): While others offer more books and far better prices, Alibris handles payment, shipping and returns directly, making it the easiest place to purchase used books.
Bibliofind (www.bibliofind.com): Now owned by Amazon.com, this listing service also has a vast directory of books and bookstores. It can also notify you when a book you're hunting is listed.
Bookavenue (www.bookavenue.com): A newcomer worth checking out.
Bookfinder (www.bookfinder. com): A metasearch engine for books with a database of 20 million volumes from thousands of sources, including ABE and Bibliofind.
-- Michael Stroh