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Seven Questions for Better World Books Co-Founder Xavier Helgesen

If your art and design library contains a sizable number of cello-wrapped, sticker-laden volumes whose pages are stamped with the names of their previous institutional owners (“Property of Wyoming Public Library” indeed!), then you have probably discovered the wonders of Better World Books. The online bookseller’s vast selection, low prices, commitment to social responsibility (from carbon-neutral free shipping to donating millions to literacy programs), and kooky brand image make it a must-click whether you’re stocking up on books by Steven Heller (collect them all!) or tracking down an out-of-print exhibition catalogue. The Mishawaka, Indiana-based company is about to kick off “Shop from Work Week” to encourage cubicle-dwellers to shop online when they should be working. “It’s not every day you have the green light to shop from work,” says Better World Books co-founder Xavier Helgesen (pictured), who scours the web for old bikes, bike parts, and interesting cookbooks when not busy with his duties as vice president of textbooks. “Although being in the e-commerce business, I get to call it ‘comparative market research.’” With the procrastination-themed sale afoot, we took some time away from our fashion week preparations to ask Helgesen seven questions about books, branding, and building a better world.

1. First—we can’t help it!—what’s your favorite book?
I love too many books to name for a whole bunch of reasons, but a classic that is really tough to beat is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I remember first reading it in eighth grade and literally falling out of my chair laughing when the Vogon is reading poetry.

2. And what are you reading these days?
On the fiction end, I devoured The Road by Cormac McCarthy in a few days. It was stark and harrowing, but completely addictive. On the non-fiction end, Jamie’s Italy by Jamie Oliver is making me a much better cook and making me love Italy all the more.

3. Now that we’ve got that settled. How did better Better World Books come about?
Better World Books started with a single college book drive on Notre Dame’s campus in 2002. Our idea was to collect books that the college bookstore didn’t want and sell them online as a fundraising for the local community center. That is still the basic model we use today, though on a much bigger scale.

4. What have you got planned for “Shop from Work Week”?
We’re having a lot of fun with this sale, it’s very tongue-in-cheek. We just decided, you know, people just don’t shop from work enough, so we’re declaring an international Shop from Work Week. Of course, our day-part traffic shows that we make most of our sales from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but really, that could be doubled or tripled! People fritter away an average of two hours a day at work, so they may as well do some shopping while they procrastinate. We couldn’t restrict the hours of the sale, as that wouldn’t be fair to second and third shift workers, so customers are on their honor not to shop the sale from home after hours. We’ll even have the site rigged complete with a “boss button” that shows some nifty graphs—but you won’t need it because your boss will be shopping!

And the sale itself is pretty sweet. We’re created a special sale category of books—hundreds of thousands of titles—to which the sale applies. If you put one in your cart, you get 3% off. If two, you get 6%. You probably guessed by now that three books gets you 9% off, and so on—up to 10 books at 30% off (additional books beyond 10 are also 30% off). It’s the perfect reason to start forming some valuable new habits—like shopping from your desk!

5. What’s the strangest or most unusual thing you ever purchased online while at work?
Well, this was actually for work, but in the early days of the business we didn’t have enough money for shelves to put our books on. So we won an auction on eBay for three semi-truck loads of used library shelving. It just goes to show that you can sell anything on eBay.

6. You’ve built a brand that a lot of people are passionate about—how would you describe the voice and values of Better World Books and how have you cultivated that brand identity?
We try to do good in the world without preaching or scolding people, and I think people really respond to it. We also have some fun doing it and aren’t afraid to have fun with our customers. If people just want a cheap book now and again, that is great. But if they really want to learn about literacy programs and our social mission, then we have a lot for them to read and learn. We believe that a social mission is one of the best differentiators in business today.

7. Finally, as a seller of tangible books, how do you feel about e-readers? Do you have one?
I do own an iPad, but I’ve only read one book on it. I think it is all a bit overhyped. My problem with eBooks is simple: where do you put them on your bookshelf?

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