Local Bookshop Pedals Back

by Dan Brekke

Wired News, February 5, 1999

BERKELEY, California -- In a bid to grab back market share lost to online competitors, a jewel in Berkeley's bookstore crown is teaming with a local bike-delivery firm to create what they half-jokingly term an "Amazon.com-free zone."

Cody's Books, a 43-year-old Telegraph Avenue institution, and Pedal Express, a bicycle-delivery cooperative, launched a service in December that promises same- or next-day book deliveries to customers in Berkeley and the university town's neighboring communities.

Cody's owner Andy Ross makes it clear that the fledgling venture is more than quixotic activism or a play for attention.

"I think we're being overwhelmed by marketing more than anything else," Ross says. "Everybody hears about Amazon, and the media seems enamored of them. We just have to be able to deliver books faster than Amazon, and I think we can."

Cody's stocks 150,000 titles in two stores and has access to millions more through the same distributor that Amazon.com uses, he says.

The little bookshop may not be able to match discounts offered by the likes of Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. But Cody's can promise cheap, quick, personal service that the online giants would be hard-pressed to match, says Cody's buyer Patrick Marks. The partnership with Pedal Express may even reclaim a few local customers lost to literary e-commerce, he says.

"Most small stores can do what these guys can do," Marks says. "[Online bookstores] have big databases and good service. But on some things, they're not so good. Their delivery is expensive -- that's where they get you. We're also capable of a rapid response -- understanding what our customers want, putting offerings in a cultural context -- that the bigger companies can't do."

Not that Amazon.com's banishment from the greater Berkeley area is imminent. Cody's doesn't offer online buying, so customers have to email or call in their orders. And there's no way Cody's can match Amazon's billion-dollar marketing war chest. So the local-delivery service is off to a modest start. Since the deliveries started, the company has been making just five or so deliveries a week, estimates Pedal Express co-founder Dave Cohen.

But Pedal Express, which runs a fleet of four heavy-duty cargo bikes, has 30 regular customers who use it to receive inter-office mail, documents, and even food. These clients -- which include parts of the University of California, local city governments, and software publisher Sybase -- are a natural market for Cody's to pursue.

"Those are all the biggest employers in the area," Marks notes. He also expects Cody's to offer secure online sales some time later this year, another development that should lure more customers.

Cohen says Pedal Express is eager to get other Berkeley booksellers to use the service. So far, the service has roped one other store into trying it. "Once we get all the independent bookstores using us, this could turn into something really impressive."

Bill Curry, director of public relations for Amazon, agrees that the decline of the independents is a concern, but adds that the small stores' plight began long before his company became a force in the trade.

He calls the Cody's-Pedal Express collaboration "very inventive" and said the bookstore "should be congratulated on that." But he cautions that some of his company's advantages -- for instance, its ability to help readers discover and purchase obscure titles in their key interest areas -- can't be answered by delivery speed alone.

"We're past the time you can open a shop, put books on the shelves, expect people to come in, and have a business," Curry says. "It's critically important that independent booksellers reinvent themselves, and that's what's cool about what Cody's is doing. They can bring a higher level of service to their customers."

Indeed, the entire bookselling industry is in upheaval. The increasing dominance of brick-and-mortar monoliths like Barnes & Noble and Borders threatens to wipe out small entrepreneurs and the diversity of literature, just as the rise of the supermarket industry shut down local grocers, bakers, and butchers. The independent booksellers' market share has fallen from 32 percent in 1990 to about 18 percent today, and online competitors account for at least part of that decline.

Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble is consolidating its power in the book business with a bid to acquire the largest US wholesale book distributor, Ingram Book Group. That acquisition has been singled out as an especially potent threat to competition, because Barnes & Noble could use its distribution clout to squeeze rivals. The Federal Trade Commission is still investigating the antitrust implications of the purchase.

For shopkeepers like Ross, however, the issue goes deeper than market-share pie charts and corporate maneuvering. Independent shops have to prevail, Ross argues, because they're the cultural hubs of communities.

"Cody's and other bookstores have given character and depth to their community. Amazon doesn't do anything for the community. It doesn't pay taxes, it doesn't employ people."