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3 November, 2013 - 15:52 By Tony Quested

‘Amazon’ of antiquarian books turns the page

Jim Hinck, co-founder of viaLibri

A Cambridge business has harnessed the reach of the Internet with the power of the written word to build the world’s largest online site selling antiquarian, out-of-print books.

Jim Hinck and his wife Ann Marie Wall moved their business viaLibri from the US to Cambridge and have written a new chapter in a real life success story.

viaLibri has more than 200 million books in its online catalogue – many dating back to the 15th Century with some manuscripts even older. That millions of these are rare and valuable can be taken as read.

The way the business has grown also kills the argument that the digital age would mean that e-books would earn while paper books would burn. viaLibri.net has become a sanctuary in cyberspace for book collectors, librarians, researchers and bibliophiles. It hosts the world’s largest marketplace for old, rare and out-of-print books alongside a unique international library search tool and other related features.

Metasearch technology developed by viaLibri has also been installed on the website of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. Self-funded, launched in 2006, profitable in 2007, viaLibri relocated its operations and development activities to Cambridge in June 2010.

The couple, born in the US, have been antiquarian booksellers since the late ’70’s, starting out in the US. Jim says: “When the internet came along it quickly became apparent that almost everything we were familiar with in the marketplace for old and rare books was about to change – in some cases dramatically. It was clearly going to be a boon for collectors, although many of the older and more established booksellers might not be so happy to see things change.

“I had a definite idea of what I thought was going to happen so we moved and reorganised our business in anticipation of it. We only had to wait for someone to build a website that would make it all happen. After that, several years went by and the things I was anticipating kept failing to materialise.

“While the used book business was being commoditised by Amazon and similar sites, nothing happened that was also aware of the special interests of collectors, researchers, librarians, etc. The marketplace for pre-ISBN books continued to be dismissed or ignored.

“Eventually impatience got the better of me. I thought about it for a while and eventually decided I should just go ahead and build it myself. I was not a programmer, but I knew that I could teach myself what I needed easily enough. It was actually fun.

“I am, of course, still at it and the thing that I had imagined when I started is still very far from being complete. But I have never, for a moment, looked back. Prior to moving to Cambridge we lived in Paris for nine years. viaLibri started while we were living there. The book business had been incorporated in the US before we moved.

“When viaLibri started to take off we needed to spin it off as a separate entity. We needed a location where we would have access to technical talent and eventually be able to find and hire employees. We needed a place that had infrastructure and attitudes to support entrepreneurs. That was not France (for us at least). Cambridge, the undisputed tech hub of Europe, was easily the best place for an internet business like ours. It’s also a great place to live and a good home for our book business, which Ann Marie continues to run.

viaLibri is a metasearch and pulls its results from 25 separate databases, most of which duplicate each other to a certain degree. While some sites prefer not to publish the total number of books they have for sale Jim is confident that the number of distinct books that can be can be found using viaLibri would be more than 200 million. “Whatever the number, it will be larger for us than for anyone else,” he says.

The nature of the catalogue is constantly changing. Jim says: “There are lots of items listed from the 15th century and even a few manuscripts that are earlier than that. Most European countries are represented, although Italy and Germany tend to account for the bulk of the very early printed books.”

So if paper is dead why the resurrection in antiquarian publications? Jim says: “I would not pay much attention to anyone who told you that paper was dead. Our users certainly do not think so.

“Ebooks have many unique virtues and seem to be expanding the interest that people have in books in general, but ink and paper still produce the most satisfying text for reading, especially when illustrations are also involved. At least that is the popular opinion that I now see most often reported, and it is certainly the viewpoint of the people who use our site.

“Printing technology is still much more versatile and refined than screen display and is likely to remain so for a while. It is also a very mature technology, which makes it much less interesting to investors and professional futurists.

“But I am personally inclined to also look backward and see the high degree of craftsmanship that went into book production in earlier periods. Flat screens and pixels just can’t compete.

“As a result, the arrival of eBooks and the debate surrounding them has had the somewhat paradoxical effect of increasing appreciation for printed books. Unlike digital versions, these are often visually appealing physical objects, cultural artefacts, or even works of art.

“Much of this was unnoticed or taken for granted in the pre-digital era. Now there appears to be a rediscovery taking place. We are participating in that rediscovery.

“The business of publishing new books is, of course, experiencing upheaval as a result of ebooks. But our market is very different and probably stands more to gain than to lose from this.”

While upmarket auction houses tend to publicise the markets in art and historic or celebrity memorabilia they are likely to be dwarfed by the number of book collectors on the planet, Jim believes. He says: “The number of people who actively collect books is far greater than the number who collect paintings, and possibly even antiques (which is a term that really covers a lot of unrelated things).

“Unfortunately, it is not the type of marketplace where meaningful numbers are available. But if you did manage to compile them, they would be significant.”

• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Jim Hinck, co-founder of viaLibri

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