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November 16, 2000|ASHLEY DUNN,

Buying books online is pretty much where the whole idea of e-commerce got started. ( opened for business in 1995 and has since been joined by hundreds of new-, used- and rare-book dealers. Prices are not necessarily better than bricks-and-mortar bookstores, especially when you consider the price of shipping. But the selection and convenience of buying books online cannot be beat.

Best site to shop: Amazon remains the best and most entertaining of the bunch. With its book reviews, automated suggestions, book news and sales ranking for every book, the Web site is great excursion even if you don't plan on buying anything.

Best sites to buy: Amazon, Barnes & Noble (, Borders ( and ( are all good choices. tends to be cheaper, but the company's service has been spotty and its selection is far smaller.

Convenience: All of the majors do well in this category. Buying a book online just isn't that complicated.

Customer service: Amazon is justifiably well-known for its good customer service, and its e-mail responses are generally prompt. One shortfall is the difficulty in finding its customer service telephone number so you can actually talk with a human being. The number exists, but it is buried deep in the Web site.

Shipping and return policy: Shipping costs and times are similar for most of the major booksellers. As a yardstick, charges $3.49 per order plus 99 cents for each book. Standard shipping takes about five to nine business days. As for returns, Amazon will give a full refund on returned items up to 30 days, even if you did not enjoy a book recommended by its Web site. Some sites allow returns to be made at their retail stores.

How it compares with offline: If you need a book right away, online buying is just too slow. Otherwise, it is one of the easiest and most convenient options. Do not assume that buying online is cheaper. "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" goes for $17.95, plus $4.48 for shipping from Amazon. It sells for $11.97 at Crown Books. Online shopping really excels in locating hard-to-find books. Only downside: You miss that great smell of a real bookstore.

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