Fairfax Times

April 11, 2007 - timescommunity.com

Online lending library calls Vienna home

Though it doesn't look like it, tucked away behind the car dealerships of the western edge of Tysons Corner is a hidden literary giant. Vienna entrepreneur Doug Ross is responsible for sending tens of thousands of books all over the United States and providing a lot of people with a lot to read.

Ross is the founder and president of Booksfree.com, a paid online book lending service. Members pay a monthly membership fee to have books mailed to their homes. They can have a certain amount out on loan at a time and get to keep the books as long as they need them. The fees differ per package, but the basic one is $8.49 a month for the right to have two books out at once.

"It's been described as Netflix for books," Ross said, in comparing his compan to the popular online DVD rental service. According to Ross, the similarities are coincidental.

"The idea came to me in the middle of the night in 1999," he said. Ross, in his 60s, had just sold his successful IT company and was trying to decide what to do next.

"There was a lot of talk about the Internet then; Amazon.com was real big, but I knew I didn't want to sell anything and deal with discounts and a lot of hassle. I thought, 'What can I give away?" Ross recalled.

The answer was books, and a lot of them. Six years later, Ross has more than 13,000 customers in all 50 states. "We're growing 30 to 50 percent per year," he said.

Every day, Booksfree's warehouse receives between 30 and 70 mail tubs of paperbacks. Ross and warehouse workers sort the books onto wall-to-wall bookshelves. Booksfree does not use the Dewey decimal system or sort alphabetically by author. Instead, books are assigned barcode numbers as are the shelves. The numbers are used by Booksfree's computer to tell what shelf a book is on once it is requested by a Booksfree customer using the Web site.

"The Web site and the warehouse management system were very, very complicated. We learned as we grew," Ross said.

Although Booksfree seems similar to a standard lending library, Ross disputed the comparison.

"Some libraries have been looking at home delivery but only with the assistance of grant programs, and they charge per book. We're a lot better deal," Ross said.