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Impossible Accomplished

Page history last edited by Gwen Foss 13 years, 12 months ago


The Impossible Accomplished


A Not-so-Short History of TomFolio.com



Written by Gwen Foss, with much help from Lee Kirk, James Lawton, Chris Tozer, Jeanne L. Burr, Steve Ericson, and many more of our friendly bookdealers!



TomFolio.com was launched in November 2000 after more than 18 months of work, testing, and planning by a widely disparate group of specialized independent bookdealers. It was the first co-operatively owned used-book portal. TomFolio.com was the first website where customers could buy from many different independent bookselling businesses on a site that was owned by bookdealers and dedicated to bookselling, rather than through a corporate entity with little experience in used books.

Prelaunch History


As early as 1988, some used-book dealers started using their computers to sell books on internet bulletin boards and newsgroups. During the 1990s, several companies started online services to facilitate used-book commerce over the rapidly growing web. Among these many services three major, highly active portals—Interloc, Abebooks, and Bibliofind—emerged to offer large, well-organized database systems where independent dealers could display and sell their books.


But nothing good lasts forever. Interloc was overhauled by venture capitalists in 1998 and relaunched under a new name (Alibris) and a new business plan less savory to independent dealers. At nearly the same time, Exchange.com, a general commerce site, bought Bibliofind and then resold it to Amazon which folded it into the Amazon site; until then Amazon had not sold used books. Suddenly two of the three main sites had morphed into booksellers themselves rather than operating solely as venues for independent bookdealers to use. This left Abebooks as the sole online used-book portal of any size, and some dealers feared it could go any time—which in fact happened in 2001 when it was purchased by a German company.


Things were made ever more difficult for independent dealers because each major portal operated under its own rules and fees which were subject to change without notice. And change they did, frequently, each time further squeezing dealers' profit margins with rapidly-increasing fees, limiting and manipulating the types of book data that were allowed, providing inadequate reimbursements for shipping, restricting contact between customers and dealers, and otherwise placing impositions on the manner in which individual booksellers preferred to conduct their businesses.


To many dealers the transformation of Interloc into Alibris and the virtual death of Bibliofind under the heel of Amazon constituted a double crisis.


Discussions on bookseller lists centered on fears that Abebooks was too vulnerable to be relied on: the partnership of its three owners could suffer a breakup or the site could be swallowed up in a buyout during this heady period of venture capital investment prior to the dot-com bust. Independent dealers were losing their independence too fast. Something had to be done.


Numbers of alarmed dealers, mostly in the United States, but also in Australia, Canada, and the British Isles, got together via chat room and email list in earnest discussion of what to do.


Ideas and proposals went nowhere until the late Alyce Cresap said quietly, "How about a co-op?" and Lee Kirk crowed in response, "A co-op! That's it!"


On 30 April 1999, the first bookco-op email list was launched. The first message was posted by Doug Welch. Early movers and shakers were Fred M. Zarro, Bruce Taylor, and Shirley Bryant. Other dealers included Bennie R. Warden, Raymond Spivey, Ed Sharpe, Norman Riger, Barbara Radisavljevic, T. Lawrence Pitts, Jack Owen, Arthur Nelson, Anton Martinich, Barbara Lightner, Penny Kautzer, Leigh Holleschau, Olivia Hibel, Dennis Grannen, Deb "Blondie" Graham, and Kathi Bloomquist.


With an almost unstoppable drive, Barbara Lightner stepped in to carry the ball, getting the co-op formally incorporated. Those most interested in the project pooled their funds and hired an attorney experienced in the laws regarding cooperatives.



A temporary name—ABookCoOp—was chosen. Incorporation papers were filed in the state of Wisconsin after it was determined that Wisconsin had the best laws for organizing and managing co-operatives. Incorporation and the initial charter stock offer took place in December 1999.


Bylaws were carefully drawn to prevent any corporate buyout by a) limiting shareholders to one vote regardless of how many shares held, b) requiring that the board of directors be elected from among shareholders, and c) requiring shareholders to be independent bookdealers with physical inventory.


"Naturally, given the wealth of the average bookseller, this was a bootstrap, pay as you go, operation."—Jim Lawton


All monies and work were donated by interested dealers on behalf of the co-op, which was now legally defined as a not-for-profit entity. Dealers volunteered hours of their time and pitched in with dollars when necessary.


When ABookCoOp came out of the chat room and became a reality, many dealers who had been lurking on the sidelines began to jump on. Initial shares were sold for US$250.00 and soon about 200 intrepid dealers had become shareholders.

Finding a Webmaster


"Bill Lewis of Bookwizards searched for months to find a programmer that could do this thing that had never been done before—a not-for-profit co-operatively owned bookselling site—and something else that had only been done three or four times at that point—create a used bookselling site. Nowadays, you can get the software 'out of the box.' It wasn't quite that easy then."—Jeanne L. Burr


Our newly hired website administrator, Laurie Anderson, not only had several years of online experience in operating website marketplaces, but was excited about the possibilities of an online co-op and was committed to the ideals of co-operative business. With her expertise, the construction of a used-book online database began.


Of course there were critics who continued to predict failure, citing the small budget of the co-op for creating a functioning database, the difficulty of getting independent and highly opinionated booksellers to agree on anything, the naiveté of the concept, and all of the technical requirements involved. In fact, the profound technical ignorance of the dealers was, perhaps, a blessing—enabling them to forge ahead in the face of monumental difficulties.


Looking back it's clear that our dedicated webmaster, whose knowledge and persistence in surmounting technical (and personality) obstacles, is the one who made the website a reality. Laurie Anderson's ongoing contributions to TomFolio.com can never be adequately acknowledged.

Choosing a Name


Our real name and online presence—TomFolio.com—was something that took almost a year to settle on. As with many other events in our birth and continued operation, those involved argued long and hard about what name to go with before the decision was finalized. But interestingly, the actual decision was arrived at almost in an instant.


Some early name proposals were:























Early names that were almost chosen were Bookuniverse.com (which nearly won until it was discovered that it was already owned and could not be obtained), Elfbooks.com, and ABookworld.com.


More than 200 names were proposed. After preliminary polling, an intense two-week period of discussion, arguing, and almost final votes were taken, until a very late entry, TomFolio, essentially ended the debate and emerged the nearly unanimous winner.


The name TomFolio was proposed by Bill McDonnell on 4 April 2000. As he later recalled:


"The list was going nuts with 20 different boring names, most with 'book' in the name. No name seemed very interesting, so I suggested this name as something entirely different. To my surprise, it won hands down."

Our First Annual Meeting


Our first Annual Meeting, as mandated by our bylaws, took place in a hotel conference room in Chicago, Illinois, on Saturday, 2 June 2000. More than 20 intrepid Folians traveled to Chicago to attend this historic meeting. As participants enjoyed putting faces to names at last, the final details of the site’s goals and plan of operation were agreed upon.


Over the next few months, and in many cases continuing on, there were at least a dozen committees, working groups, and individual volunteers handling various duties on behalf of the site. Some of the early and more lasting committees were: Content, Technical Issues, Finance, Fundraising, Membership, Category System, and Public Relations and Publicity. More recent committees and working groups include: Author Autographs, Author Anagrams, and the TomFolio Wiki Project. Other volunteers took charge of the newsletter and various listservs or email discussion groups.


These hard-working, dedicated members spent literally thousands of volunteer hours building and promoting the website:


Chris Tozer, Rock Toews, Tim Scott, Jeffrey Sandrone, Myrna Roberts, Barb Radisavljevic, Richard Mori, Richard Menec, Lee Kirk, Martha Kelly, Clive Keeble, Ann Poe Lehr, Jim Lawton, Lera Lamme, Aric H., Steve Harter, Janet Hall, Henry Hain, Kari Gibson, Paul Gardner, Don and Sue Gallagher, Gwen Foss, Bette Feinstein, Steve Ericson, Stephen Dunker, Joanmarie Dale, Ann Clark, Bill Chappelear, Linda Chaney, Cindy Byrne, Kathi Bloomquist, Jeanne Burr, Pat Bosson, Helen Arnn, Jim Arner, and many more.


Significance of Being Co-operatively Owned


"Used booksellers are far too an eclectic bunch to take to herding."—Jeanne Burr


From the beginning, the main concern was that the site be under the control of its member dealers, not corporate executives driven by the need to increase the profits of their investors. There would be no sudden imposition of new and higher fees since fees would be determined by the co-op. Member dealers would be required to provide descriptions of their items on an individual basis, not according to some backward scheme imposed by a corporate entity. Dealers would have direct access to their customers and be able to deal with them on a one-to-one basis. They would have control of their selling terms, their shipping terms, and all other aspects of their businesses so long as they abided by the newly crafted Code of Ethics. Technical glitches, if they occurred, would be admitted openly and dealt with swiftly, not covered up.


Stephen Dunker and Bill Lewis purchased the domain names bookcoop.com and bookcoop.net in anticipation of the soon-to-be launch. The name abookcoop.com was bought and held by Anton Martinich.


These early days were sometimes hair-raising and some of the nay-saying finally proved true. Personalities clashed mightily and by the time the website was launched, Barbara Lightner, Alyce Cresap, and Shirley Bryant had all resigned from the project. Bill Lewis, whose technical knowledge had landed him in the position of liaison between our webmaster and our member dealers, also resigned after a time.


"We had very interesting—meaning 'fiery'—discussions, with enormous egos and big sulks then—personalities (using the word loosely) came, fired up and extinguished themselves leaving smoking trails."—Barry Watts


Where in the World did "TomFolio" Come From?


In an issue of The Tatler (London, 13 April 1710), Joseph Addison wrote:


"Tom Folio is a broker in learning, employed to get together good Editions, and stock the Libraries of great men. There is not a Sale of books begins till Tom Folio is seen at the door. There is not an Auction where his name is not heard, and that too in the very nick of time, in the critical moment, before the decisive stroke of the hammer. There is not a Subscription goes forward, in which Tom is not privy to the first rough draft of the Proposals; nor a Catalogue printed, that doth not come to him wet from the press. He is an universal Scholar, so far as the Title-page of all Authors, knows the Manuscripts in which they were discovered, the Editions through which they have passed, with the praises or censures which they have received from the several members of the learned world."


"Tom Folio" was indeed a real person, better known to his colleagues as London barrister Thomas Rawlinson (1681-1725), the bibliomaniac. 

Settling In


"One of the founding principles of the co-op was to NOT tell our colleagues how to run their business as long as they adhere to the code of ethics. In fact the attempt by some people to be too dictatorial was a real problem in our formative year."—Jim Lawton


A new email list for shareholders was launched under the new name. Over the next year, a number of working groups were organized from among member dealers. Various projects were undertaken, some more successful than others. Nearly every Folian took a hand in member recruitment of some kind, even if it was just to "talk up" the site to other dealers in their own locale.


A monthly fee structure was established, based in part on fee structures of the larger sites. Dealers with larger inventories paid a higher monthly fee. Fees were set as low as possible, just enough to cover the costs of listing and the services of our webmaster- programmer (the only paid position). Everything else on the site was handled by volunteer members. Fees have never been raised since they were established and are expected to be lowered if and when we have enough shareholders to allow us to do so.


Our lowest tier remains at US$35.00 per month. The bulk of this covers our ongoing technical needs—hardware, software, and our webmaster's salary—while a small amount goes to the co-op itself for bookkeeping, advertising, and whatever other expenses come up.


"The original share price was kept extraordinarily low with the expectation that the shareholders would continue to contribute financially to the co-op by listing. One early supporter once said that the share price should have been US$5,000.00."—Jim Lawton


New Categories of Membership


In 2001 we established a variation on owner-membership: the patronage shareholder. According to Jim Lawton, this category was invented by Nancy Strand, a book collector in Petersburg, Alaska, who wanted to support the co-op concept. She purchased a share, did not list any books, and paid a fee of just $10.00 per month to retain her ownership status. Since then we have had several owner-members do the same.


Following our original business plan, the price of an ownership share was raised to US$500.00. This neither slowed down nor increased the rate at which we acquired new shareholders; in fact, the total number has remained at about 200.


"The folks that bought in at $250.00 bought into an idea. The folks that buy in at $500.00 are buying into a real product."—Stephen Dunker


In 2002, as crises of one kind or another continued to rock the online book world, many dealers who had not yet joined TomFolio began asking to be let in without being required to puchase a share. After extensive discussion on the owner's list we finally decided to create yet another new type of membership for these non-owning members, also called subscribers, listing members, or listers. Shortly after this new option was made available, we reached our highest level of membership.


Dealers were now able to join without buying a share; they would pay the monthly maintenance fee only. While this decision brought us many new members with many wonderful used books to offer, it did not add anything to our contingency funds which are used to keep the site viable and growing.


Expansion into Personal Webpages


Shortly after this time, our genius webmaster devised a way to allow members of TomFolio to get an independent-seeming webpage for themselves, complete with inventory search and shopping cart features, hosted by TomFolio. These new pages, called "personal pages," are essentially free to members except for a small fee to register one's unique domain name.


TomFolio's personal sites are different from regular dealer pages in several important ways: 1) they do not link directly to the main site; 2) they have their own domain name—that's the part between www and com—rather than one of those long addresses full of slashes; 3) they appear to be independent from TomFolio but use TomFolio's shopping cart fuctions, thus enabling dealers to accept more types of payment than the main shopping cart; and 4) they can be easily modified with the use of various templates and color schemes which are under control of the dealer.


The personal pages "give us similar functions as [the best of the other] services, but with all the other benefits of membership in the co-op."—Rock Toews


These new pages helped bring in even more dealers as well as more customers and TomFolio further continued to grow. 

Splashpage Overhaul


In 2005, a small but determined group of member-owners, few of whom had any experience designing a website or writing computer code, set about the task of overhauling our homepage.


Several important features—our slogan, the image of Tom, the search box, the Author Birthday box—were rearranged and improved. Images were added to feature attractive books from random dealers and daily birthdays of notable people (mostly not authors) were linked to relevant topics in the category system. Best of all, interesting historical events and holidays from around the word were posted daily, linked to their relevant categories or subcats in a new feature called "On This Day."


Richard Menec chaired the team that researched and authored reams of text and links for the daily-changing "On This Day" feature. Steve Ericson single-handedly ran the Featured Books area by manually copying and pasting items from the database, putting new items in about twice a week. Other volunteers in the project were Myrna Roberts, Barbara Radisavljevic, Sharon Duling Moehn, Stuart Manley, Karen Cinquemani, and Cindy Byrne.


The result of all this work was an overwhelming improvement to the entire site. The main page was easier on the eye and clearer about what TomFolio was and stood for. Most important of all, the site was now so much more "tasty" to general search engines that we achieved a rapid increase in traffic, sales, and new customers. 

Looking Ahead


Traffic and sales have continued to increase. Soon after our 2005 overhaul, most of our longtime dealers began reporting that their TomFolio sales were now outstripping one or more of the "big" sites.


As time goes on we continue to gather in fiercely independent book and paper dealers who love the freedom we offer, as well as attracting wonderful customers—or should we say highly savvy book lovers—who save money and show their excellent taste by shopping at TomFolio.com first.


Commenting on our almost unbelievable success, Lee Kirk said:


"The scoffing has stopped—we have proven that we are viable. We operate in the black, pay as we go, we have a clean, well-programmed website that is rarely off-line for more than an hour or two for maintenance. We have a superb administrator and some dedicated hard-working members who have stuck it out through all of the ups and downs of decision-making."


In Memoriam


Barbara Parker

Early Shareholder

died 13 Feb 2001


Alyce Cresap

Board Member

died 8 May 2003


Anne Poe Lehr

Member Dealer, Host of Annual Meeting

died Jun 2004


Allan Milkerit

Member Dealer

died 24 Jun 2007


"Grasshopper" Ed Sherbeyn

Member Dealer

died 17 Feb 2009


Stephen P. Dunker

Board Member

died 22 Feb 2009


Tim Scott

Member Dealer

died Jul 2009


Jean Marie Parmer

Member Dealer

died 27 Nov 2009


Victor Buday

Member Dealer, Printer, Lithographer

died 9 Jan 2010





More Information about TomFolio.com:


Search by Title, Author, or Keyword Here


Browse TomFolio's Books Here


Our Code of Ethics


Our Bylaws


Our Board of Directors


A Brief FAQ


Information on Becoming a Member-Dealer

More pages by Gwen Foss here





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