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
"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
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
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
The company was originally called Advanced Book Exchange, before becoming
"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
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
"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
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
Eventually, Cathy and Rick decided to leave the company with Keith
remaining as Chief Information Officer and Vivian as VP of
"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
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
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."