William Drenttel | Essays

What Ever Happened to Half.com, Oregon?

Photo via Project Guerrilla

I love buying books, especially online, especially through Amazon or Bookfinder or ABEbooks. (And yes, on eBay.) But the site I really love is Half.com. In it's early days, Half.com was an innovator and a Wall Street darling, a narrow service (no groceries, just books and music) that used a simple driver (ISBN), and, through its simple interface, promised a commitment to speedy delivery. Sadly, it was bought in June 2000 for $312.8 million by eBay, who wanted its customers (but not its fundamentally different business model). There was talk of shutting it down, but vociferous consumer protest persuaded eBay to back off. Half.com has never fully recovered, and today, it's sort of a second-rate site, one of eBay's more marginal subsidiaries. (In the same period, eBay also partnered with Sotheby's — another venture that went belly-up.)

But back in 1999, in its Netflix-like heyday, Half.com was hot. And then it did something quite remarkable. As a publicity stunt, it bought a town — somewhere in Oregon — and renamed it. This news made the wire services, The New York Times and Wired Magazine.

So what ever happened to Half.com, Oregon, the first dot com city in the world?

Halfway is a sleepy village, a farming and ranching community, halfway between Pine and Cornucopia, Oregon. The New York Times poetically described a town "tucked away in the shadow of the snowy Wallowa Mountains in eastern Oregon's sagebrush country, hard by the Idaho border." In the 2000 census, Halfway boasted a population of 337. (In the interest of full disclosure, let me just mention that my family originally hails from Browns Valley, Minnesota, population 690. Today, I live in the third smallest town in Connecticut: Falls Village, a rural hamlet with a whopping population of 1,081. Future biographers will likely report that small-town dwelling was in my genes.)

But company towns are completely different. A month ago, the Pacific Lumber Company announced that it was selling Scotia, California — along with its 275 houses — to its workers. "While this lovely little town has one of everything — a single supermarket, a single restaurant, and a single doctor — what is more notable is what it lacks. There is no city council, no mayor, no governing structure whatsoever. As the only landlord in town, Pacific Lumber provides the town's security, sewage treatment, water, power, maintenance, and, in the winter, free firewood." Without its owner, Scotia may have a hard time surviving.

Other towns have reconfigured their identities by renaming their towns themselves. Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania renamed itself Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania in 1954, when the widow of the sports star agreed to bury him there. in 1950, the town of Hot Springs, New Mexico, renamed itself Truth or Consequences — after the game show by the same name. More recently, Ismay, Montana changed its name to Joe, Montana — hoping to build profitably upon the name of the football superstar by the same name.

Then there's Braselton, Georgia, some 60 miles from Atlanta, purchased for $20 million in 1989 by the film actress Kim Basinger. (Four years later, when she was sued for backing out of a movie, Basinger was forced to sell it for just $1 million.) In West Homestead, Pennsylvania, the mayor has put the town's name on the block for $1 million, not unlike a stadium in search of a big-name sponsor. Poetry, Texas has recently been featured on the website of the Poetry Foundation, while Colson Whitehead's new novel, Apex Hides the Hurt, traces the story of a nomenclature consultant "trapped in the small town of Winthrop, deciding whether its name should be changed to Freedom (the name given it by liberated ex-slaves) or New Prospera (the brainchild of a software tycoon)."

Back in late 1999, the town of Halfway, Oregon wasn't looking for a sponsor. But a then-new internet startup called Half.com was looking for a gimmick — or, as Joshua Kopelman (Half.com's CEO) called it, "recognition as 'out-of-the-box' thinkers." They offered the town complicated packages (stock, internet access, free giveaways at the annual rodeo), and an implied series of long-term benefits, including a call center located right in town that would have translated to new jobs. In the end, the town received $110,000, 20 computers for its school, and a free town website. Today, nearly a decade later, the town site is no longer functional — for, as Kopelman himself notes: "This is the Net, and all contracts are short-term contracts." (One should remember the timeline: the deal with Halfway was approved in December 1999, and the $300+ million sale to eBay was in June 2000, making this perhaps the most cost-effective PR stunt in American history.)

Without an operative site in place, I hit the phones, calling local businesses like the Clear Creek Farm Bed & Breakfast, the Birch Leaf Guest House, the Hillside Bed & Breakfast and the Halfway Supper Club: no answer anywhere. I assumed Angela's Beauty Salon might be open for business on a summer afternoon — yet here, too: no answer. I left a message at Ronda Dillman Insurance Agency. Finally, I tried The Shop ("Need your car checked out? At The Shop, we don't just work on cars, we fix them."). A fellow named Gordon R. Kaesemeyer answered. He told me he was busy , but could give me a few minutes.

I asked him about the town's decision to rename itself Half.com, which, Kaesemeyer told me, turned out to be a rather short-term arrangement. "We just passed a proclamation that lasted for one year." I asked him whether the town actually got the money and computers promised by Half.com: "Yeah, we got our money and some computers," he assured me. " 'Course that just caused some problems like money always does." Encouraged by his answers, I thanked him for his time and asked him to put me in touch with Halfway's mayor.

"That would be me," he replied.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History, Social Good, Technology

Comments [28]

"There was talk of shutting it down, but vociferous consumer protest persuaded eBay to back off."

One would like to believe that. However, it was cold, hard ecommerce.

I was and am a Half.com affiliate, and was making extremely good buck from those fine folks via my book price comparison site isbn.nu. They told us a year ahead of time they'd be shutting down. They turned the lights off on the affiliate program about five months before the scheduled shutdown. And they tried to transition we affiliates to eBay's less-well-designed book sales.

And then they kept seeing money pouring into Half.com even as eBay ramped up book sales. They saw merchants selling on both stores selling much more than merchants selling on either stores.

Visions of dollars did verily leap before their eyes.

And Half.com was saved. Not customers, but merchants saved the site. And I'm very glad. They reimplemented their affiliate program in November of that year, and while their cessatio cost me many thousands of dollars in lost revenue, the fact that I now offer prices from eBay and Half turned out to be a good thing.
Glenn Fleishman

There is indeed a Halfway, Oregon, and it's not too surprising when it or any other obscure (but beautiful) Western locale pops up in a newspaper or magazine article.

For another view of Halfway, Oregon, see pages 141-165 of photographer Robert Adams' book "Turning Back," a meditation on Oregon 200 years after Lewis & Clark that was published a year ago at the time of his exhibition by the same name at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Halfway is out here in that part of Oregon that lies east of the Cascade Mountains. It's "high desert" in the vernacular, and it's home to a few real cowboys and lots of coyotes. Sunshine, scenery, government irrigation programs and highways have created an equation that now yields outdoor recreation and golf resorts in nearby places like Bend and Hood River, Oregon. Halfway is still nowhere, but it's neighbor, Joseph, was described not too long ago in the New York Times of all places as a place where you just might buy your own private paradise in the West before the rest of the world discovers it and runs up the price of real estate.
Thomas Osborne

I went to college in a small town in Oregon, and one of the girls on the newspaper there was from Halfway. She viewed the whole thing as a dumb publicity stunt, but it also gave Halfway 15 minutes of fame. From how she told it, there's really not anything in Halfway -- she was accustomed to spending all her time watching TV or surfing the internet. Shame in an area that's so beautiful with tons of opportunity for outdoor recreation, because the Wallowas are a truly amazing area.

I live in South Dakota. Went to college with a guy from near Browns Valley who now works for the Co-Op spraying fields up there.

I also worked with a girl from Browns Valley.


Big Willi:

Great Story, I'm still Chuckling at the
Mayor Anecdote.

So Many Jokes about A One Horse Town.

A Man after my Heart when it comes to buying Books.

I was Shocked and in Awe several years ago when I learned Amazon.com now OWN Bibliofind.com

When I purchased my First Computer in 1999 I shopped Regurlarly at abebooks.com, Bibliofind.com, Bookfinder.com They were my FAVS.

Savvy Book Dealers would list their Services on those websites to Widen their Client Base.

Did you know there is also a Bookfinders.com?
Which is located in the UK if memory serve me correctly.

Online Book Services are a God Send in the Old Days you had to find an OUT OF PRINT Book Seller
whom charged $ 1.00 or $ 5.00 Dollars for a Book Search and you never actually knew whether or not the Search for the Requested Material was Commenced.

Last I heard a few years ago eBay was in Negotiation to Purchase Sotheby's somehow that Did not Sound Right. It seemed it should've been the other way around.

I Love eBay as well. Live Chat is no Substitute
for Human Interaction. My only complaint about eBay. You can't talk Directly to them to Trouble Shoot a Problem.

I Buy All my Nelson Riddle and Francis Albert from Half.com. I Guess that would be considered eBay because of Acquisition.


Glenn Fleishman said: "they kept seeing money pouring into Half.com ...And Half.com was saved. Not customers, but merchants saved the site."

I see a touch of hubris here. The money came from the customers, after all. Perhaps "consumer protest" was incorrect, but that doesn't mean the merchants get all the credit.

Great story, something I've wondered off and on over the years.

I gave up on Half.com as a buyer and seller - they don't seem to want me. Amazon, though far from perfect, is easier to sustain a relationship with.

Now, if only we can find out how King of Prussia got its name!
Steve Portigal

King of Prussia took its name from a local tavern. How boring.

My grandmother lives in Richland, Oregon - the next town over from Halfway. She frequently has to drive to Halfway because it has the nearest ATM, the nearest full service bank, and Tami's Pine Valley Funeral Home (cheaper than anyone in Baker and very compassionate). The nearest airport is in Boise, Idaho, a three hour drive on a good day.

Hubby and I go out to visit Grandma every couple of years and have fallen in love with the area. We *will* be retiring there, provided we can get reliable internet access! Halfway, Richland, Baker, and Joseph are all beautiful!
Lisa Foye

We were going to name our son Halfway; just couldn´t see us naming him after me - Halfassed.
Guess he would have been Halfassed Jr.
But luck would have it we didn´t have a son; had a pair of daughters - Halfaloaf and Halfwayhome.
Cute girls.
My wife just divorced me.

It's ISBN, not ISBN number.

[Editor's note: correction made. Thank you.]

Hey, I buy books from all those places too, but I also scour garage sales, estate sales, and library sales to find interesting books, then I resell them for a small profit on my used book website at www.fuknbooks.com I use the money to take my girl out to dinner, pay for my college education, and sometimes make up for what I lack in rent money. I have great books (travel, ethnography, vintage, sci fi etc) free shipping, and it all goes to a good cause. Thanks for letting me spread the word.

chris damitio
Chris Damitio

This bit about Santa, Idaho has an interesting quote, that includes the aforementioned mayor.

"Halfway, Oregon mayor Gordon Kaesemeyer says it set up a special non-profit corporation and transformed $20,000 of its money from the Halfway, Oregon deal through federal and state grants to a sum totaling almost half a million dollars."

Sounds a lot more savvy than the phone call would have led you to believe, eh?

don't forget about george, washington.

"Glenn Fleishman said: 'they kept seeing money pouring into Half.com ...And Half.com was saved. Not customers, but merchants saved the site.'

I see a touch of hubris here. The money came from the customers, after all. Perhaps 'consumer protest' was incorrect, but that doesn't mean the merchants get all the credit."

I wasn't a merchant, so no hubris on my part. I was an affiliate, and I was cut off from revenue from sales referred to Half.com during the period eBay made the decision to not shut it down.

What I mean to say is that it wasn't customers complaining about Half.com that caused it to continue to operate. eBay, like pharaoh, had their hearts turned to stone. They thought it was a good business decision.

The combination of Half.com sellers, and I mean the bookstores not individuals on it, continuing to keep their listings on Half.com up until what was expected to be the very end of that service, and the fact that people continued to purchase from those merchants led eBay to keep the store open.
Glenn Fleishman

I grew up in the City of Geneva, IL which is not actually named for Geneva, Switzerland, but rather Geneva, NY, which is named for Geneva, Switzerland. I always liked that idea of displaced naming. As if the settlers had never even heard of Geneva, Switzerland and their rarified European airs.

There are several cities in Illinois that are named from Spanish words (when all things Spaniard was sweeping the nation during the Spanish-American war). Of course these people had never heard a lick of Spanish spoken, so the names are not pronounced the way they are in Spanish.

I suppose this is the same story as Cairo (pronounced Keye-Ro) Illinois. Egypt was exotic. And so apparently was the pronunciation.

Glenn Fleishman's comment is a smart distinction: it is true that my love affair with Half.com was partially a function of being a merchant (seller), not just a customer (buyer). Their business model made it especially easy to sell items, relative to eBay or Amazon.

Tim's reference to Gordon Kaesemeyer is also enlightening. It is a nice(r) ending to the story if the town actually got half a million dollars in government grants by leveraging part of their Half.com payoff.

These are both good examples of online journalism at its best: readers adding to and helping to improve the reporting. Thank you.

And I didn't know about George, Washington.
William Drenttel

Cycle Oregon, a week long cycling adventure every September, visited Halfway a few years ago on our way around the Wallawa's and stayed for the night. I recall a very friendly small town - I also recall that we cleaned out all of the beer at the local tavern! I also seem to recall that the 2000 riders in town resulted in the largest one day retail sales the town had ever seen.

Gotta love a bike ride that visits the smallest towns in the most out of the way and beautiful areas in one of the most beautiful states!

Randy McCall

Well I was going to gush on about the beauty of that region, but it looks like some people already have. Go Wallawa's!

"King of Prussia took its name from a local tavern. How boring."

Yeah, that is boring - I grew up going to King of Prussia Mall all the time, and when I learned about Prussia in European history I always wondered which king they were talking about. I guess the only king that survives the test of time - alcohol.

King of Prussia is a boring place. It's just a mall that grew some housing around it.
Ted Mielczarek

As for towns named with idiosycratic pronunciations of far-flung places, my favorite has always been Versailles, KY. Right outside of Lexington, in the rolling hills of the bluegrass, its horse-loving residents call their town "Ver-sales."

It might be better than "Versaleez," but probably not.
Alex Cheek

By the way, Halfway can't be between Cornucopia and Pine because the place is called La Pine.
david stairs

no, david, it's pine. it's a very small town right before you get to Halfway. LaPine is south of Bend.

I live in Halfway, Oregon, moved here February 14, 2004. I now am the tech support person for Pine eagle School District who is just about to surplus and 'yard sale' those E-Machines that Half.com gave the schools (max out at 64 MB RAM).

Clear Creek Farm Bed & Breakfast is back in business, with a new owner. The Hillside Bed & Breakfast is still in business. Birch Leaf Guest House and the Halfway Supper Club are no longer in business. Angela's Beauty Salon was purchased by Claudia Strom and is operating as Halfway Beauty and Barber, where I get the grey "removed" from my hair. Ronda Dillman Insurance Agency is and has been alive and well, and Rhonda is my agent. One of the great things about living and workin in a small town is the flexibility of working hours--you can catch your customers at the Old Pine grocery store or Mimi's Cafe or at the the Hells Canyonm Journal or the Post Office. And since it is so gorgeous here, why sit in the office by the phone?

Gordon was recently re-elected as mayor of Halfway. He's perfect for the job, as he is great at getting people to volunteer, is wonderful at delegating and is a whiz at cutting through county, state and federal bureaucracy to, as he says, "Get 'er done!" He is president of United Community Partners, a 501.c.3 corporation that is a funnel for grants and funds into the area.

Pine Town is now the local designation for an area in Pine Valley, no longer an active town, and Cornucopia is an old mining town that has a lodge and many old cabins of folks hoping the price of gold skyrockets.

Halfway's incorporated city population is in the mid 300s, but Pine Valley as a whole has around 1500 folks. Small towns may seem amusing to most (my family can't imagine that I'm three hours from the nearest mall) but remeber that a traffic jam here consists of perhaps 6 to 10 vehicles in the center of town and occurs when the snowmobilers, hunters or Cycle Oregon folks come through, and we're always happy to see them all.
Eileen Monti

Oh, yes, I forgot to provide the link to our webcam:

Eileen Monti

I grew up spending my summers in Halfway. my grandmother and great-grandmother (who lived to be 103!) lived there at the time. my aunt and cousin live there now. it was a wonderful place for a suburban kid like me to have the opportunity to go hiking, horseback riding, rafting in hell's canyon, camping with pack llamas. it is a beautiful place and I'd love to find a way to spend more time there someday. i'm now an architect living in new york city but i find myself daydreaming about pine valley and all its wild beauty. it is as they say, "halfway between heaven and hell's canyon" and it is home to my heart.

@William Drenttel - Thanks for the awesome coverage of this interesting piece of American history. I found this URL while doing the research for a plan to make a similar deal using some intellectual property of mine, Awesomeville(TM). I've reached the halfway milestone, and have started on the second half--I'm currently looking for a town that is interested in giving a boost to their local economy. Please feel free to direct interested parties my way. You can see the screenshots of my journey on my flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/soawesomeman/tags/awesomeville/

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