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June 8, 1999


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22-Year-Old Student Runs Cyberspace Bookshop

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Sonia Chopra

Anirvan Chatterjee Soon after a barbecue party for Microsoft interns held at Bill Gates's house near Seattle, Anirvan Chatterjee turned down an offer to work for Microsoft. Nearly two years later, Chatterjee says he is more than pleased with his decision.

"It was fabulous working with them. It was exciting but I found that the options in the future would be limited," he said recently. "Besides, I get lost in crowds of people, it's intimidating."

He turned down the Microsoft offer so that he could continue concentrating on the book site he had started in early 1997. The site,, has attracted the attention of book buyers and sellers from around the world.

"More amazing than even," said the Entertainment Weekly about the site recommended by the US Library of Congress. It has received rave reviews in the New York Times Book Review, Money magazine, PC Magazine, and USA Today. It serves over 250,000 users, running a million searches every month. Chatterjee, 22, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, is planning to make the book site his "full-time paying job".

"I hear a lot about people who had been searching for books for years -- sometimes even decades -- and found them within seconds from my search engine," Chatterjee continues. "Most of these books are obscure by nature, for example, a book of fringe science from the late 1960s, a book of Canadian religious photography from the 1890s, a children's picture book from 1929, a book of Australian bush poetry from the 1970s... "But finds these as easily as it does the latest John Grisham bestseller," he says.

This reporter, out of curiosity tried her hand at the search engine, trying to locate cherished childhood books by much-loved author Enid Blyton. It took about 60 seconds for the list to come up.

Running his own site also helps him to be an independent person.

"I always wanted to be my own boss. I'm a creative person. I want to have something of my own. In my mind chakari (job in Bengali) and chakour (servant) are the same thing," he continues.

Chatterjee, who has a background in web and Unix programming, started building the book search engine in fall 1996, when he was 19, and an undergraduate studying network information systems at University of California at Berkeley.

He developed a simple version of the system as his final project for a seminar on "network agents". He put the site online, available to the public, in late January 1997 "as a hobby". But when the site caught on, he began hearing from hundreds of independent book stores who wanted to be a part of his enterprise.

Today, it is a major source for eight million used, rare, and first edition books offered by 10,000 independent booksellers and - accessed by more than 250,000 users worldwide, who run more than a million searches monthly.

The selection of titles range from cheap used copies of popular fiction, to college textbooks, to rare and expensive books.

"I love reading. I've always been a heavy reader. My parents read to me as a child, and instilled a real love of books in me...I still try to get through about a book a week," says Chatterjee, who was born in Canada but raised in the United States.

"I fit the stereotype of a lazy Bengali," he continues, with a chuckle. "I can't do a lot of work to find books, so I just create the software programs to do it for me."

With other friends at Berkeley, he has formed a company called, "13th Generation Media."

Why ''13"? "It's an extremely lucky number, not easily forgotten and many great things have happened to me on that date," Chatterjee says.

But the project itself is a secret for now.

"You'll see. Time will tell," he says mysteriously. He clams up when he is asked about how much money he spent on the site and if there are any profits in it for him. "The banner advertising pays most of our bills and the service is free for the user," he says.

For now, Chatterjee, who has a scholarship takes up computer consulting jobs. He encourages graduates to seek internships "because they give an insight into high-powered companies" and gives one "memories for a lifetime".

His lifetime memories also come from the letters from readers and newspaper reviews.

The users have lots to say in the feedback section of his site, some of which he shares with the readers at large: "Fantastic, brilliant, thank you, thank you and thank you," said one.

PC Magazine says about Bookfinder: "A terrific tool for finding used and rare books, lets you input a specific price range... Information returned was detailed and accurate."

It is definitely a new way of collecting books. In a review, the New York Times pointed that out.

"A lot has been written about what the electronic age will do to the book, but almost nothing about what it will do about book collecting. You don't realize you are in a room that contains eight million books. You just think: How nice. They have what I'm looking for... Collecting this way felt natural, like using an ATM. The books came. They came and they came." The speed makes readers and collectors ecstatic.

"Satisfied users tell stories about searching for decades for books that [Bookfinder] turned up in five minutes." said Entertainment Weekly a year ago.

"Over the past several months, Bookfinder has helped me find many books from shops in Ohio, Georgia and Indiana, and I've yet to have a problem... Will keep it bookmarked for future searches," said Money, in an article on "Buy-the-Book-Strategy" last May. The price makes people happy too.

PC World Online said about Bookfinder, " scans only independent bookstores and avoids the big blockbuster chains.... and after I ran several titles... Found that at least one of the independents always had a better price than the Big Boys." It's a time-saver because Bookfinder acts likes a personal shopping agent.

"It saves you the trouble of hooking up with each web bookshop separately in your search for that special volume. Just type in author's name, or title, or even the ISBN number, click on 'begin search' and it checks with... online bookstores and gives you a report on who has what and how much it'll cost you," Yahoo said on its Internet Life Useful Site of the Day.

About his success, Chatterjee is humble and reticent.

"It's never one person who can move heaven and earth. A lot of people and factors have gone into it. My friends, my family, my professors, my going to a good college and all this support and encouragement and again my family which taught me to strive from an early age," Chatterjee says.

In case, you want to know what Chatterjee himself reads: In a month he read the latest novel of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, a populist history by Howard Zinn, a book on metaphysics or existentialism and one or two books on the electronic media. He lists among his favorite authors Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi and Amitav Ghosh. His passion for literature is not confined to books in the English language.

Through helping organize events such as the North American Bengali Conference to be held in Santa Clara, he joins in celebrating the culture of his parents. He has made it part of his own culture too by visiting Calcutta and taking part in cultural events there and in San Francisco.

Next time you are looking for a book about Rabindranath Tagore and Y B Yeats or a rare version of Kama Sutra or an obscure poetic work by novelist Nabokov, think of Bookfinder.


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