How e-commerce lost its humans (plus: are they coming back?)
The first few years of the World Wide Web were a paradise for collectors. Those who'd long been cooped up in the walled gardens of Prodigy, AOL and Compuserve were suddenly released into the wild in a sort of dork exodus, and one of the first things they (okay, we) did was to search out and trade rare goods. Books one had sought in vain for years suddenly became available—in multiple copies!—on newly minted websites like Bibliofind and Interloc. There was GEMM for rare vinyl, and thousands of individual sites sprang up offering vintage apparel, rare comics, model trains and china, trading cards and mid-century décor. And then there was eBay, where usernames began as email addresses, facilitating contact between all kinds of people with similar interests.
It was intoxicating, too, to have instantaneous access to experts of every description. The knowledge of antiquarian booksellers, for example, for so long confined to printed catalogs and out-of-the-way publications, was suddenly and immediately available. On the Bibliophile mailing list you might meet Forrest Proper, the Cambridge proprietor of Joslin Hall Rare books, ever ready to shoot the breeze--not just about book collecting but about early American furniture, lacquerware, enamel. Dr. Harry Nudel in Manhattan would tell you anything you might like to know about poetry, about New York, about his particular passion, Abstract Expressionist painting. It was a special treat to have a particularly abstruse question answered by the late Jeff Falco, the bibliographer's bibliographer and an extraordinary polymath and wag who eventually became known by his sign-off, "Regards, Jeff". I finally met this notoriously shy (and, in the event, ridiculously handsome) man IRL, at a book fair. "I'm Jeff," he said; at my puzzled look, he added, "some people know me as Regards, Jeff."
The real novelty in these early transactions, though, was their directness. It was very weird to send money (by check or money order, at first) to someone in a distant state or country, trusting that your book or cashmere cardigan would eventually arrive, even though the recipient of your dough didn't operate a "real" shop or mail-order business. But these transactions worked out, again and again. Trust, once established, was richly rewarded in what seemed like an inexhaustible fountain of rarities, insight and information. The need for intermediaries was disappearing, it seemed. You could know people, rather than just do business, in an entirely new way.
Then the intermediaries returned, as eBay, Amazon and other megasites proceeded to take over the business of market consolidation and payment processing, skimming a percentage off each transaction. It became increasingly difficult to contact counterparties directly. If all the books were in one place, then all the book buyers and all the booksellers would come there: a net positive for all. In terms of sheer convenience, this is inarguably so.
But. The aggregation of the rare book market paved the way for what might be called the Wal-Martization of the web. Today's typical purchase of a rare book takes place on Amazon, without so much as a line of email passing between buyer and seller. Transactions are quick, impersonal and go relatively smoothly. Prices for rare books collapsed as the market swelled and titles once thought "scarce" were found to be actually quite numerous. And since there is nothing to distinguish buying from an antiquarian specialist rather than a Zillions-o-books (a fictional firm, but there are many such, mass used booksellers with no specialized knowledge to impart), the Joslin Halls of the world are far less frequently found on mass-market services like Amazon today.
Our reliance on online megaretailers appears in some ways to be betraying the web's initial promise of global person-to-person connectedness. Yet there are still tens or hundreds of thousands of small retailers online (including Joslin Hall). Many of these are actively seeking to reframe e-commerce as something more personal, fairer, more immediate, more interesting. For many, it's worth paying a bit more in either time, trouble or money to encourage independent businesses, rather than taking the path of least resistance to the lowest price and one-click ease of use. This is something worth thinking about.
Maybe we really don't want to be Wal-Martians! Maybe we would rather do things another way.