Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Few Notes on the Circulatory System of Books

I had mentioned earlier today on Twitter that my bookstore was becoming inundated with books. We always have a healthy influx of tomes (we are a large used bookstore), but in the past two weeks we have suffered an unrelenting avalanche of titles coming into us, 90% of which come from random people off the street. Some people bring one book, some bring one box, and others bring trunks and bins full of books. This spring we have received more books than I have seen in five years at the store.

There are several effects of this deluge: first, it means that our inventory swells mightily. As an ancillary effect of that increase in volume, the quality of books usually rises as we can pull and price down books that are in worse condition or stack a large backstock of a title on one of our sales tables and mark them down for quicker sale. We date all of our books and when a title has been on the shelf for too long we do something to get it sold, to make room for what will sell more quickly, which is the goal. We price all of our books competitively (and often lower) for our market and have no problem selling them for less after awhile if it gets them into someone's hands. This includes sometimes circulating books out to the Dollar Carts, several large wheeled bookcarts that we cram with all manner of books looking for a new home for what amounts to a small service charge for them.

Another effect of this surge of books is that we can be pickier and pickier about what we select and can price to buy with more discretion. So we can not only improve the general condition of our stock but vary it, and find both more popular and more obscure titles that we know sell. A side effect of this is that books that in lean times we would buy regardless of condition we pass on, because we either have it in better condition or can afford to wait for a better quality book to come in, and with many titles that is not a risky choice. When you work in a used bookstore and use your eyes you quickly get to know what people are looking for and a sense of what is moving and what is not. You buy more of what is moving and take fewer chances on what is not, unless the slow movers are something valuable or that you know someone is looking for.

An additional effect of this is that we often do not buy a portion of the boxes and bins and bags of books that come our way. Usually people take them back and keep them, or donate them to the Friends of the Library Book Sale's massive warehouse (where twice yearly they are sold in a bibliomaniacal bacchanal) or to Goodwill or to the Books Through Bars program (books for prisoners), whose base of operations is on the top floor of our building. Sometimes, the sellers do not want the books back, and if they so choose they can leave them with us to dispense of, which means that often the titles go out on our Dollar Carts. Also, one of the benefits of working at the bookstore is that we often get first crack (after the boss, of course) at what is left behind.

Today we received (not just bought) somewhere around 700 books, and about half of those were just left by the sellers. This amount of abandoned books is pretty rare, but it happens. This time of year the FotL are not accepting books because of their sale, students are moving, adjuncts are moving, and in the current economic climate regular folks are moving as well, and many do not want to haul the crates and tubs and satchels of books we could not buy with them, except maybe for the one that they realize was inscribed to them by their sister or Tomie de Paola or that tattered pocket of Dhalgren they scribbled all over in high school (all true stories, by the way). So they leave them. Sometimes we'll buy a few items personally (I bought a few titles from a friend who brought in five boxes of books today), but the rest need to be dealt with, and generally we try to not let them pile up.

This means that we have to decide what to do with the books quickly. In slower periods, unless they are seriously damaged, the books go right out to the Dollar Carts. But today, there were just too many, and despite the fact that we were selling $1 books quickly, it was not quick enough to keep from having a massive pileup of books. Also, the side effect of buying applies to the Dollar cart as well; the quality of condition and titles is pretty good on the carts. Packing them with old textbooks or tattered children's books makes no sense. Thus, a a decision has to be made to recycle some of them.

Usually one of my colleagues handles that task because I am the primary pricer and the specialty buyer, and I try to get in a lot of time at the register while pricing so that I see what is going out and get an idea of what's selling, what people are saying about prices, etc. This meant that I watched my co-worker going through stack after stack of books and creating boxes of books to recycle. But today, seeing some of what she was getting rid of (some of which she consulted with me about, to see if it should be saved, particularly fantastika, social science, and lit crit) I just couldn't take it anymore, and I undertook a book rescue. I salvaged 24 (EDIT: 32) books from the death pile (well, 22 books, 1 DVD, and a small blank book for my daughter) that I thought I could use and that I felt would either get recycled or get lost on the carts with the piles of similar titles.

The pictures above show you what I rescued, and it is quite a selection. Some were rejected because they had writing in them (we almost never buy any book that has more than an old price and someone's name in the book); others because they were determined to not be good enough for the shelf (my boss is quite biased against lit crit, for example, while I have little discernment for music books)or because we already had better copies, or because it might sell slowly, and in this business, books that stay on the shelf are pretty,but otherwise just taking the space of a title that might get scooped up quickly.

This is part of the circulatory system of books in a capitalist system. People buy books, read them, cherish them, display them, loan them, forget them on park benches, drop them in a puddle. . . books go through a cycle of consumption and ownership, and generally end up passing to another owner. Sometimes they get put in an old suitcase at a yard sale with a bright yellow "$1" sticker on them; other times they get passed to a friend. Often they get boxed up and brought to another part of the system - a library, a used bookstore, a charity - to be recirculated. This can happen many times in a book's life. I have seen books with as many as five different owner's names in them, held books nearly as old as the first printing press, and found everything from money to nude pictures to pages of handwritten poetry in books. The book as object is commodity, it is a transference and holder of symbolic capital, it is a culturally-constituted nexus of ideas and identity, pleasure and enlightenment(well, some are).

And our system produces a lot of them, so many that some of those characteristics get erased, or reconfigured. Yet some people still look stricken when they leave us books; others walk away or dismiss them with a ritualized "Well, I didn't like it that much anyway." But almost all of them ask if the books will still see some use, even the ones warped into curls by water damage, dotted with mold, or that have part of a honeycomb from a wild beehive attached to them. Few people want to hear that the books they brought in are going to be sent off with old newspapers and disposable coffee cups. Even the folks who bring in bulging plastic grocery bags of cheap mysteries want to know that the book will go to someone else, even if they hated reading it. The book is still a significant part of our economic circulatory system and our cultural system, even in the age of the Internet and e-books. That may be changing (and this rise in books coming to us may be a symptom of that), but these bound codices of glue and ink and rough flattened wood have some meaning to many people, especially me, and it is both sad and humbling to see this part of the circulatory system at work.

EDIT: This morning (5/22/11), being unraptured and all, I was cleaning out my courier bag and found that I had not taken books out of it last night. So I found 8 more rescued books:

The small soiled hardcover at the bottom is a copy of Bigsby's Dada and Surrealism (Critical Idiom). Not sure if I will read the Stross, or a few of the others (although I am already reading the Best European Fiction 2011). I have set aside a bag in the corner by my desk to start tossing in books that I can bring to Readercon this summer to distribute. Now trying to find room for them; it looks like winter sweaters will be put away and their shelf used to house books!


Paul Weimer said...

Well, written John.

I daresay that this blog post really brings home how important books are in your life, and to our society.

Carl V. said...

Thanks, this was fascinating to read. I always wondered just how the book buying aspect worked at used bookstores. Looks like you brought home some real treasures yourself. I purchased a couple of the Orbit books myself last year and hope to track down others. I absolutely love the covers. Speaking of, that is an interesting cover for Saturn's Children. Hadn't seen that one before.

The Erudite Ogre said...

Paul: Thanks so much! Working at the bookstore has brought that home to me many times.

Carl: You are very welcome. I love the Orbit books and actually set two more (w/out covers) aside to bring to Readercon. The Saturn's Children is another SFBC edition.

Number 4 said...

"The Resurrection Station", Lesbian Sci-Fi. I own a copy of that!