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Petaluman launches smartphone app for book lovers

When most people think of books, they think about a relationship between the reader and the words on the page. But leave it to community-centric Petaluma to inspire one of its residents to expand that relationship and create Bookal, a new smartphone app that lets neighbors easily buy and sell books from each other.

Petaluma-based freelance photographer Ramin Rahimian's recently launched iOS app is a “buy local' alternative to Amazon and eBay. Rahimian, a freelance photographer for newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, last October got the idea for the app after observing his wife, Press Democrat photographer Beth Schankler, buy books to read for her book club.

“My wife was in a book club and every month there was a package coming from Amazon and it frustrated me,” he said. “We have this great local independent bookstore and when I asked her why she didn't buy from Copperfield's or take the book out of the library, she said ‘it was inconvenient and Amazon could give me a better price.' Or, she would wait for someone to be done in the book club then race to read it. It got me thinking, book clubs are reading one book a month and they're reading popular books. Then the books are languishing on people's shelves. So, I thought, let's get them out there circulating.”

This idea turned into a reality after Rahimian read an article in the Press Democrat about a young man from Santa Rosa named Chris Kelsey who dropped out of high school to start Appsitude, a company that creates Smartphone apps. Rahimian pitched Kelsey, who liked the idea and became a partner to create Bookal. A Nov. 20 launch party was held at the Petaluma Arts Center to usher the app into the community.

The app is simple to use. The user downloads it from the Apple App store (other platforms will be available in the future) and creates an account with a link to PayPal.

To sell a book, users scan the book's ISBN number and all of its information is automatically added. To buy a book, users search for the title. If there is a copy available within a five mile radius of the user's location, the program will give the user the option to press a button and buy that copy.

Once the button is pressed, the seller has two to three days to deliver the book to the buyer's door and the money is transferred into the seller's account. If no local copy is available, a user in Petaluma will be directed to Copperfield's website and encouraged to buy the book from the local bookseller.

Pricing is fixed according to book category. For example, paperbacks are $5, hardcover books are $7, art books are $20 and textbooks are $40. Bookal gets 10 percent of the purchase price.

Jocelyn Seltenrich, a marketing consultant who belongs to a book club in town, said she thinks Rahimian is on to something.

“We always try to get current titles and the idea of having another way to get the book and be in the community is exciting,” she said. “It's home-grown Petaluma and it's ingenious.”

Rahimian believes the social side of the using the app is just as important as the marketplace aspect. Users can share posts and videos that focus on books and authors, much like Facebook with a focus on books.

Users can also create a digital representation of one's home library by scanning in the ISBN codes on the books their shelves. The app gives an option to mark a book ‘borrowed', so there is no more searching for a book that's been lent to a friend and then forgotten.

“When you upload a book, you can leave a review and there is a section where you can write something more,” Rahimian said. “You can tell people what the book means to you like ‘my grandfather gave me this book' creating a deeper connection to the book and help to build community.”

And there is a rating system after the transaction, which Rahimian hopes will create trust between buyers and sellers.

Children's book author and local artist Abraham Schroeder said he thinks the app is a good idea.

“I love books, I collect books, and I hoard books,” he said. “Over the years I've donated a lot of books to book drops and you don't know where they are going. Will they find a new life or will they disappear? I am author, so I would love people to buy retail, but realistically books are expensive. This is a way for people to share around the community because maybe the book they want is down the street.”

Rahimian said people are already comfortable the models used by eBay and PayPal.

“We want to reduce the clutter and keep the ease of those systems and keep the fun social aspects of Facebook and elevate the discussion,” Rahimian said. “Our goal is to be the go-to for anything to do with books.”

The app is available nationwide, but book lovers, academics and students in Petaluma and Sonoma County will be the focus of Bookal's initial marketing campaign. And Rahimian has plans to expand the app's features. A crowdfunding for self-publishing authors will be included in future versions.

Learn more at getbookal.com.

(Contact Elaine Silver at argus@arguscourier.com)

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