Cathy Waters

AbeBooks.com was born from two apparently unrelated worlds - used bookselling and Internet technology.

The story begins in the western suburbs of Victoria where Cathy, a life-long booklover, had opened Timeless Books in 1994 after a career as a computer consultant.

"It was a typical used bookstore," said Cathy. "I stocked general secondhand books but people often came into the store and asked for books that I didn’t have. Eventually, I put a half-page ad in the trade magazine, AB Bookman’s Weekly, listing around 100 books that I wanted to buy from other booksellers for my customers.

"The ad created a nightmare. Every day I got a five-inch thick pile of mail from dealers across America. The information about the books was written on postcards and scraps of paper, and in all types of different formats. Keith looked at the piles of mail and said ‘why are you doing this?’"

An IT contractor, Keith was working as a database designer for British Columbia’s provincial government at the time. Intrigued by his wife’s struggles to find hard-to-find used and out-of-print books, he began to consider how Internet technology could solve the problem while still working for the BC government.

He believed an online database that listed booksellers and their books in an easy-to-search format was the way forward. After drawing up a proposal, the Waters put the idea to long-time friends Rick and Vivian Pura.

Rick, who had worked alongside Keith in the 1980s, was also an IT contractor and thought the idea had potential. Rick and Keith began working on the project evenings and weekends in Fall 1995 and it eventually went live in May, 1996.

"Originally, we imagined it would be a database just for booksellers in Victoria, but it soon occurred to us that we had to go international in order to make it work," said Cathy. "Keith and Rick grasped what the internet could offer. Remember, Keith was already developing Web-based systems for the government."

The company was originally called Advanced Book Exchange, before becoming AbeBooks.

"We didn’t think enough people knew what 'antiquarian' meant so, instead of Antiquarian Book Exchange, we settled on Advanced Book Exchange," said Cathy. "We didn’t want to be the paperback exchange. It gradually became Abe and we always liked the idea of ‘Honest Abe’ and everything it stood for."

The couples directed their own funds into creating the company with Cathy still running Timeless Books while also manning AbeBooks’ first ever customer help desk.

"We put our savings, our personal investments, and the money we had saved for our children’s education into the company before we started taking money out to pay ourselves," added Cathy. "I bought my children’s clothes at thrift stores for a couple of years."

In order to attract booksellers and build up the book inventory, AbeBooks offered six months free subscription and that quickly brought in the first 50. "After that, we reduced the incentive," said Cathy.

"We attracted booksellers by going to antiquarian book fairs – Rick and Vivian went to the Burbank book fair and then seven days later Keith and I went to a fair in Boulder, Colorado. We went to the Seattle children’s antiquarian book fair, and then we ran out of money for traveling. We did not want to be a faceless entity – we wanted to show that we were real people and that we understood books and bookselling. That was very important. Booksellers realized that we were for real and having the 1-800 customer service number helped immensely."

AbeBooks’ first "office" was a single desk at the HQ of its Internet service provider, Pacific Coast Net. There were two computers and a single phone line. "The bunker, which housed the servers, used to get so hot that we had to go out and buy fans to keep it cool," added Cathy.

"Keith was a day person while Rick was a night owl. However, I’d often hear Keith coming home at 4 am. When Rick and Keith were working in the bunker, they had to switch off their cell phones. So if I was at home and needed to get hold of them, I'd go onto the site and run repeated searches saying ‘Keith call home, Keith call home’ until they noticed the search on the database files and called me."

The first booksellers to use the site all hailed from Vancouver Island – Cathy’s Timeless Books plus Wells Books, Russell Books, Renaissance Books, and another Victoria bookseller, Heather Graham, who now has a bookshop in Port Alberni.

"At first it was booksellers buying off other booksellers," said Cathy. "We put a tiny little ad into the New York Times book review for $1,700 and then put small ads in book magazines to increase awareness among buyers. There was steady growth and we held a party in August 1997 when we reached 1,000 booksellers. Every 200 new booksellers meant that we'd have to employ someone else."

Grafton Books

The company moved to two offices below Fitness World but soon outgrew them and moved to its present address where it has expanded room by room, floor by floor and even spilled over to an extra building across the street, where today’s Customer Support department is housed.

Cathy eventually closed Timeless Books because she could not devote enough time to running two businesses.

"Someone said that if we got to 2,000 booksellers then we’d be laughing," she said. "When we reached 3,000, it seemed like the absolute pinnacle. It was incredible – suddenly we were attracting attention from the mainstream bookselling industry.

"For me, I realized that we had really made it when USA Today ran a full page article about online book buying. We’d been going for less than a year, and because we began with ‘A’ we were at the top of their list. We were inundated with orders and we were running around trying to stop the server from going down. That was an incredible moment."

More booksellers signed up, more buyers discovered the site and more employees were hired.

"Almost every process was initially done manually," said Cathy. "Then Keith and Rick would write a program and solve another problem."

Eventually, Cathy and Rick decided to leave the company with Keith remaining as Chief Information Officer and Vivian as VP of Human Resources.

"AbeBooks had consumed my life for years," said Cathy. "We would talk about it all day at the office and then come home and talk about it all night at home. Our daughter, Sarah, would be sitting at the kitchen table and say ‘enough already.’ I knew it was time to go."

Brent James took over from Rick as Chief Executive Officer and the company continued to grow. In 2001, a leading German online marketplace for used books, JustBooks.com, was acquired and that swiftly led to the development of AbeBooks.de in Germany and AbeBooks.fr in France. One year later, AbeBooks.co.uk was launched in the UK. In October, 2004, AbeBooks acquired Iberlibro.com – a Spanish online marketplace for rare and used books.

Keith and Vivian left the company in Fall, 2003, when German media company Burda became the majority shareholder in AbeBooks.

Although AbeBooks has expanded beyond the founders' wildest dreams, the initial concept had not changed: AbeBooks still connects buyers and sellers by acting as a giant hub for bookstores where book searches are conducted in seconds.

Today the company employs 112 employees, with offices in Düsseldorf, Germany, and Oviedo, Spain, as well as Canada. More than 10 nationalities are represented in a book-loving workforce that has attracted staff from major names like Amazon, Microsoft and Sony. Macleans Magazine named AbeBooks one of Canada’s top 100 employers in 2003, 2004 and 2005. Hannes Blum, one of the co-founders of JustBooks, has been President and CEO since 2003.

Keith is now semi-retired while Cathy owns Grafton Books in the Victoria suburb of Oak Bay. Grafton is a classic rare bookstore and, of course, offers its books via the internet through AbeBooks.com. Rick is still involved in technology with a search engine project while Vivian looks after the Pura family home.

"I have come full circle," smiled Cathy, who took a couple of years off after leaving AbeBooks and then managed a bookstore at the University of Victoria for a year. "I bought Grafton Books in 2004 with its entire inventory of books as well as its antiques. I love bookselling, I love dealing with the customers, and I love selling on the Internet.

"We’re very proud of what AbeBooks has become. I still feel attached to the company and everything it stands for. It was a bit like nurturing a child: you can’t look after them forever. You have to be prepared to step away and let them get on with it."