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Online Retailing for the Little Guy

The Meriden Public Library hopes to make Friends in faraway places.

In an effort to expand its customer base, the Friends of the Library bookstore plans to sell used books on-line.

"We’re trying to discover new sources," said Frank Ridley, president of the not-for-profit group that operates the store.

By mid-March, the Friends will launch a Web site that will provide information about the volunteer group, library events and a link to Amazon.com.

Books at the Friends of the Library store will also be listed on Amazon.com, exponentially increasing the audience of the used book store on the corner of Colony and East Main streets.

The store has grown significantly since it moved to the corner of Colony from its former storefront on West Main in 2002.

In the first year, sales tripled, according to Ridley. The coming of Middlesex Community College in January seems to have increased traffic already, according to Bob Muenchow, a Friend of the Library member who volunteers at the store on Wednesdays.

The move also included the addition of a coffee shop. Until late last year, Stone House Bakery of South Meriden ran that portion. Stone House supplied the staff, but the store didn’t draw enough traffic to make the venture profitable. The Friends of the Library assumed managing the coffee shop, and sales continue to increase, Ridley reported to the library’s board of directors this week.

The "bricks-and-click" model is just the next level, according to Ridley, and it will serve several purposes.

"There are only so many books you can sell through one outlet," said Lori Barton of Web Solutions, the Broad Street firm that has designed the store’s site and arranged the alignment with Amazon.

The site, http://www.friendsofmpl.com/, will include information such as topics for the Friends of the Library, the "Heartbeat of the City" show on local access television, activities and other library-related information.

But shoppers won’t have to go to that site in order to buy from the Meriden group.

The agreement with Amazon allows the Friends of the Library to list each title for 60 days at a time. That means shoppers searching for certain titles on Amazon will get a listing of several outlets where the book is found.

Because the Friends of the Library store relies on donations, it may be able to charge less than other retail outlets. The store also can price differently online than it does in the store, where the most expensive books are $5, but most are $2 or less. For example, books that are especially hard to find or out of print may command higher prices online.

"It’s a different market, " said Ridley. Locally, the group’s mission is to increase literacy, making it important that all titles are affordable. Online, competition comes in to play, said Ridley. And since buyers will probably not be local, the commitment to selling books at rock-bottom prices is less important.

The portal also offers a way for the group to sell donated books that just won’t fit on its store’s shelves.

"You hate to say we get more donated books than we can sell, but we do get a lot," said Ridley.

Amazon’s cut is about 15 percent of each sale, according to Barton, but the trade-off is well worth it, considering the exposure the site will offer, she said.

"You can’t get any better than Amazon has with marketing," said Barton. "The bottom line is Amazon has created a portal that people feel comfortable shopping with."

Since its launch in 1992, Amazon has been credited for revolutionizing both the book business and Internet retail industry. The company (Nasdaq:AMZN) had $3.9 billion in sales in 2002, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Friends are also hoping to make their Colony Street storefront a pickup point for United Parcel Service.

"The goal is to have it at a level that we sell 100 books per week," said Barton, whose company has agreed to maintain the site and train the all-volunteer Friends of the Library staff.

"We’ve come a long way in the past few years," Ridley said.