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A comeback in rent-a-book: latest hard-covers within easy reach

Where can you rent a best seller while it still tops the lists for a little more than the cost of the sales tax on the purchase of that same hard-cover book?

The rental library, of course. A popular institution just after World War II, when hard-covers were renting for 15 cents in nearly every drugstore and candy store, they were driven out of business by the 25-cent paperback during the '40s and '50s. It became more convenient to buy books than to rent them.

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Today, with hard-cover books commanding $15 to $20 and paperbacks up to $7, the book rental market is creeping back. Public libraries frequently spend their shrinking dollars on nonfiction books, says John Martin, president of Womrath Bookshops and Libraries Inc., based in New York City. ''We stick pretty much with the popular fiction titles,'' he adds.

Womrath supplies rental library displays to book or card shops primarily in areas where the public libraries can't supply the demand, such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Womrath receives a portion of the rental income from the shops he supplies. Customers are willing to pay $1.50 to read one of the many copies of the best sellers, instead of waiting months to borrow one of the few copies available at the public library or to purchase a lower-priced paperback copy.

The public libraries order books after they become best sellers, and each book has a long waiting list by the time it gets to the library, says Binnie Estrada, co-owner of Turnover Books in Newton Highlands, Mass. Turnover gets the best sellers as they appear on the New York Times list, she says, or a little bit before. Womrath is very good at predicting which books will sell, she explains. Most of the time customers return the books within the three-day minimum period, Ms. Estrada notes, for which Turnover charges $1.50. After that the charge is 50 cents a day. Current popular titles are ''Haj,'' by Leon Uris, and ''Full Circle,'' by Daniel Steele. People like to read light things such as adventure-suspense and romance novels in the summer, she adds. James Michener's books don't do as well at the rental libraries as Sidney Sheldon's or Jackie Collins's, Mr. Martin notes. People who read Michener want to keep his books in their personal libraries. Not so with the popular pulps.

Ms. Estrada does not worry that the rental books will reduce sales, she says, because her store sells only paperbacks.

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