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Abigail Vaughn buys three books at Biography Books in Manhattan's West Village. (Photo by Katherine Bindley)

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Abigail Vaughn shops outside Biography Books in Manhattan's West Village. (Photo by Katherine Bindley)

Donna Gerding is a 41-year-old operations manager for a communications firm in Harrisonburg, Va., with an expensive habit. “My husband thinks I’m crazy,” said Gerding, who confesses she sometimes reads a book a day, averaging $30 a week to fulfill her literary needs. Gerding, who has an affinity for mystery and suspense novels, stashes her growing collection of books in a spare room, in boxes and under the bed.

A few months ago, Gerding found a solution to the clutter and expense associated with her passion for books. She signed up for an online subscription service called Paperspine.com that allows her to keep multiple books at once while others are on their way to her house. As she ploughs through five books, Free Fall, the first of a romantic thriller trilogy by Jo Ann Ross, is set to arrive within three to five days.

Paperspine is the latest book rental plan that resembles the business model that Netflix uses for online DVD subscriptions. Customers pay a monthly fee to borrow books and then drop them in the mail and wait for new ones to arrive from a list of requests they’ve created online. Paperspine, based in Issaquah, Wash., just launched in December and says it already has customers in 250 different cities and 38 states. Those customers can chose from more than 200,000 titles.

Dustin Hubbard, 31, Paperspine’s founder, is not the first to create a book rental business. Booksfree.com and Bookswim.com provide similar services. The differences between the services are variations in the way the plans are priced and what types of books they offer. Booksfree is based in Vienna, Va., and offers audio books in addition to paperbacks. Bookswim distinguishes itself by carrying hard covers. Plans among the three services range from $9.95 to $37.99 depending the number of books a customer wants at once. The appeal of these services for avid readers is saving money by not having to purchase so many books, and saving time by not taking a trip to the library.

Heather Fennell is a 34-year-old lawyer who reads an average of one book per week. Fennell says she prefers Paperspine to the library. “I can do it online any time of day and I can mail them from anywhere versus having to go to a library at certain times,’’ she said. “I pay for the convenience.” In addition, most of the books at Fennell’s library are hardcovers, and she prefers paperbacks because they’re more portable. “Can you imagine carrying around Pillars of the Earth in hardcover?” she said, referring to the 973-page historical novel by Ken Follett.

Though borrowing from a book rental service means waiting for a book that has changed hands an untold number of times, Fennell says that none of the books she received from Paperspine seemed to show signs of any wear and tear. “I found think that the vast majority I’ve received, I’ve been the first to read,” said Fennell, who often notices crisp pages and tight bindings.

The reason many of Fennell’s books might seem new is because they are. The demand among customers dictates the inventory of these companies, so multiple copies are in stock for a popular book. A customer who wants to keep a book, has the option of buying it from the Web site for slightly less than its retail price.

“There’s no trying to predict what’s going to be a popular book, it’s just the customers letting us know through the books they request,” said George Burke, the 26-year-old cofounder of Bookswim.

When customers do damage a book, they’re charged for it at a discounted price. One Bookswim customer acknowledged that her book had fallen in the bathtub. That book did not go back out to other subscribers.

Though customers generally refrain from leaving their mark on books, with underlined passages or dog-ears and coffee rings, they still often leave personal effects behind that the companies scan for and remove before they go to a new reader.

Since 2000, when Booksfree started, the staff has found a myriad of materials used as bookmarks, from airplane boarding passes and photographs to most recently, $197 in cash. “We’ve found money before, but usually a five-dollar bill or a one,” said Booksfree’s founder Doug Ross, 65, who suspects that the customer was hiding the money as opposed to using it as a bookmark. Ross said anything that looks personal, or in this case valuable, is mailed back to the customer.

Ross says Booksfree is a convenient way for people to try out books without buying them, but that he isn’t trying to replace libraries or bookstores.

Loriene Roy, president of the American Library Association, says these book services aren’t actually at odds with libraries. For starters, not everyone can afford the monthly fees of a subscription services. “The marketplace has been able to have businesses alongside libraries for many years,” Roy explained.

“I think the services can be supportive of each other in very interesting ways,” she added.

For example, a customer could get books from the rental services but still go to libraries to participate in the book clubs they host. In addition, libraries are taking advantage of the Internet in their own way to better serve their readers. Some libraries e-mail lists that show a book’s cover, its reviews and a link to check if the library’s catalog currently has the book in stock. Readers can then have the book set aside.

As for bookstores, some owners aren’t feeling threatened because customers still have reasons to buy books. Charlie Mullen is the co-owner of Biography Books, a shop in Manhattan’s West Village that has been open for 24 years. Mullen said the book services might make sense for people barreling through romance and mystery novels 10 at a time, but readers still want to own; whether it’s because they’ve grown up with books or because their presence on a shelf warms up a house.

“There are all sorts of different people who regard these artifacts in different ways,’’ said Mullen. “Some people regard them as temporary, others regard them as permanent additions to their house, their library, or their lifestyle.”

Abigail Vaughn, 30, is one person still happy to shop from the tables outside Mullen’s store. Vaughn, a second-grade teacher, said she checks out a person’s bookshelf when she walks into their house. “It provides insight into what they’re interested in” she said, adding that book collections can sometimes seem a little too perfectly chosen. “I’ve been to people’s parties and looked at their bookshelves and been like ‘Oh come on,’” said Vaughn, citing such titles as “The Lenin Reader” and “St. Augustine’s Confessions”.

Vaughn estimates that she reads five books a month herself and would consider looking into a book subscription service, but said there are certain books she just has to own. She keeps a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses” because she likes to reread it. Children’s books too, like Robert McCloskey’s “One Morning in Maine,” are not to be rented, she said. As for heavy reads with the potential to impress spectators, Vaughn didn’t shy away from admitting, “If I read ‘War and Peace’? Hell yeah, that would be on my bookshelf.”

E-mail: kab2162@columbia.edu