Saturday, October 05, 2002

A Book Club for the Ages
Virginia Women Have Read Along Together for Six Decades

Sept. 28, 2002 -- In 1941, a group of women in Northern Virginia formed a book club. Their husbands were just starting their careers and nearly all the wives were in their 20s. They would meet in the afternoons, bringing their babies along. During World War II, many took jobs, so meetings were switched to evenings.

Years passed. Then decades. Today, 61 years on, the group -- which they simply call "Book Club" -- is down to six members, age 86 through 92. They still meet regularly. Two of them still drive, one is a Senior Olympics champion, and one is an avid canoeist. They all know each other intimately.

As the members tell Howard Berkes for All Things Considered, every few meetings, they have a "book selection." Each member brings three titles she'd be willing to buy. The group votes on which one the member should buy, and at the next meeting, the books are passed on. If the group likes a suggested title that doesn't make the rotation, the woman who suggested it is asked to read it and present a "book report" to the group.

They meet every three weeks, with some longer breaks in the summer. Their favorite authors over the years have been Wallace Stegner, Barbara Kingsolver and Jill Kerr Conway.

In the early days they avoided the bestseller list, sticking to the weightier stuff of classic literature and non-fiction.

That's changed. The women don't pooh-pooh the bestseller list anymore, but they certainly don't follow it slavishly. Their reading remains as varied as ever, from academic tomes to light novels. They haven't kept count, but they have read an estimated 1,000 books each -- just for the group. That doesn't include books they've read on their own.

How much longer will they go? "The book club would never consider disbanding," says member Mary Lathram. "I think that's a terrible word for Book Club. I feel that when we get too frail, maybe we'll just… fade away."

The group's current reading list is:

John Adams by David McCullough
The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan
Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn
Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
The Last Time We Met by Anita Shreve

From NPR.
For an audio report:

Thursday, October 03, 2002

The Bookmobile Reinvented
Va. Start-Up Delivers Dime Novels, Adjusted for Inflation

By a Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 2, 2002; Page E05

Roxanne Volkmann, who describes herself as addicted to mysteries, reads an average of six books a month. At $5.95 per paperback, the cost of that addiction can add up.

But Volkmann has found a particularly frugal way of feeding her habit: She orders books online from, receives them by mail, and drops them in an envelope and sends them back when she's done. All in all, her membership costs $9 a month.

"I love it, I love it, I love it," said Volkmann, a Chicago resident, who has helped four other "freak book junkie" friends sign up. has 4,000 members, 93 percent of them women, who pay $6.99 to $14.99 a month to rent from the start-up's online library, which is stocked with 34,000 paperback titles. Its most popular titles are mysteries, romances and action novels.

Booksfree, which makes its home in a 3,000-square-foot Vienna warehouse next to a pizza-delivery joint and several industrial outfits, is run by unlikely entrepreneurs in a hostile economy. Its founders, W. Douglas Ross and Andrew E. Bilinski, at 60 and 54, respectively, are a generation older than the twentysomethings who rode the Internet boom to its peak three years ago. Booksfree, which came late to the online commerce scene, is one of the few remaining survivors.

"Our timing wasn't exactly good," concedes Ross, president and chief executive of Booksfree, who spent 23 years owning and operating a computer systems integration business just two doors away. Bilinski previously worked for EDS Corp., the Air Force and BDM International Inc.

"Doug had the idea for an entertainment services company, and at first I said, 'Nah, we are too old for the Internet,' " said Bilinski, who describes himself as a "full-time volunteer" who hasn't taken a salary since Booksfree started.

The company started in September 2001 with $1 million in capital raised from friends and former business associates. Since then, it has raised just short of $1 million more and has operated with four full-time employees, plus six or eight part-timers who take inventory and package the books.

Membership has grown steadily, from word of mouth and online advertising. One recent afternoon, part-time worker Carlos Luna, who is working toward a PhD in computer science at George Mason University, pushed a tray cart around the warehouse, filling orders placed online by customers from Maine to Texas.

The business model is similar to that of Netflix Inc., which rents DVDs by mail and raised $82.5 million when it went public this spring. Booksfree customers can take out as many as six books at a time, depending on their membership level. The company trades mostly in mainstream books that it orders from distributors Ingram Book Group and Baker & Taylor Inc., but it also boasts a limited number of out-of-print books by romance novelist Nora Roberts, for example, that Ross or Bilinski brought back from book shows. Its most popular book, with several hundred copies circulating, is Carly Phillips's "The Bachelor."

Bilinski and Ross say their biggest competitors are other online book sites, which sell rather than rent books, and local libraries, which don't deliver. Consumer retail books are a $13 billion business, according to the American Booksellers Association, so there's plenty of room for growth.

The company is not yet making a profit, although it only needs to sign up 3,000 more subscribers to break even, Bilinski said, and its goal is to reach 100,000 subscribers. With enough money to last through next year, the company's modest goal is "to grow and be profitable as soon as we can," Ross said.

In the meantime, Booksfree operates without delusions of grandeur. Everyone doubles as a book bagger, especially on days when 300 orders have to ship. Maryanne Fadul, Booksfree's comptroller, doubles as the company's customer service department. Ross is often recruited to take the afternoon shipment to the post office before it closes at 6 p.m.

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