Hunting season…

I haven’t done any proper book hunting since a few days after Christmas. Even that was more of an excuse to drop off a couple of boxes of my own discards than an effort to bring any more books into the house. The fact that I didn’t take more time then to pillage the shelves was probably the first, unheeded sign of the non-COVID sickness that struck me down a few days later. Since then, it’s been an occasional online order and walking through a couple of the local thrift shops while I was out to do other things. 

With our collective decision to operate as if the Great Plague is over, I suppose it’s time to get back into the habit. Subject to weather, my personal return to normal should be kicking off this weekend with a trip down to Anne Arundel County. The local historical association’s spring sale has been good to me over the last few years. The only thing that would keep me away is the steady rain currently in the forecast. My obsession with books doesn’t, as of yet, extend to waiting in line getting rained on for the opportunity to fight through low-roofs and narrow aisles of boxes for the opportunity to pick through items constantly being dripped on. A that point, better to spend an hour or two in a proper shop even at the risk of paying full retail. Either will likely scratch this particular itch until my annual birthday week buying binge.

On a related note, I’ve recently learned one of my favorite local used book sales – a fundraiser for Wilmington-based scholarship fund – has decided to throw in the towel. Until this spring it was held twice a year and consistently produced amazing books for pennies on the dollar of their retail value. According to their Facebook post, they’re facing a dearth of volunteers to keep the event running. It’s not surprising, but it is disappointing. I’ll miss their run-down storefront that opened into an Aladdin’s cave of the printed word once you got through the front door.

I’ve been feeding this addiction long enough to see a lot of these sales and shops disappear. It’s awfully rare to see one pop up unexpectedly. In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing that happen. In a world that didn’t have bills to pay, retirement to plan for, and in which I was slightly more insane, I’d lease a storefront or maybe a little warehouse space and offer to buy any book that came through the door for $1 a box or a $10 charitable donation receipt – Yes, yes, I know, I’d have to set up a legitimate charitable organization before offering to take tax-deductible donations… and then run a store and deal with people. That last bit alone ensures it’ll never happen. I’d never have the patience for it.

All these books that use to end up at sales and shops are going somewhere… probably directly to the nearest landfill or pulp paper buyer… I’d just like to get a fraction of them to pass through my hands and skim off the cream before they meet their otherwise ignominious fate. Wonder Book has a brilliant business model for this, but I’m hard pressed to figure out how to do it without it being a full time “day job,” needing to hire a staff, or it becoming a 30-hour a week side hustle. 

It’s a dream – a happy dream to be sure – but still, just a dream. Better to keep focusing on my niche and let the sellers and scouts keep doing their thing. It’s going to be one of those ideas that festers, though. As the shops and sales continue to disappear from the landscape, finding the good stuff outside the full retail or auction environment is going to go from rare to impossible. If I come up with a way to game that system that doesn’t involve opening my own business, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Of scouts and resellers…

I go to a respectable number of book sales each year. It’s not an every weekend thing, but six or seven times a year, one catches my attention sufficiently to make venturing off the homestead for it potentially worthwhile. The ones I like to dig into are usually put on “friends of the library” or other organizations who specifically take in book donations – they’re specialists rather than “used stuff” generalists. If I happen to be passing by an estate sale or yard sale, I might stop out of curiosity. I don’t generally seek those out even when someone advertises “lots of books.” It seems my definition of “lots” is wildly different than the average person’s. Nine times out of ten, what’s on offer is a box or two of kids’ books or beat to hell paperbacks.

There used to be a breed of person who frequented these sales called a book scout. They knew their business. They knew their points, editions, conditions, and values and could evaluate a book on sight. The best of them seemed to have a sixth sense about whether there was real value in a book – whether even the newest ultra-modern was a $2 reading copy or a $200 first edition.

Time seems to be replacing proper book scouts by roving bands of resellers. They ply their trade online, making their money in arbitrage – buying for $2 and selling for $3. Their business seems to be one of volume over quality. They’re hell with a barcode scanner and figuring out the spread on Amazon. They collectively seem to know price, but not value. 

These resellers are in there like vacuums sucking up all oxygen in the room – sitting on the floors, sprawled out, making obstacles (if not spectacles) of themselves, trying to scan every barcode in sight. It feels tawdry somehow. There’s not a bit of old-fashioned book scouting about any of it. They surely passed over the $200 book I walked out with for $10 last weekend because it simply didn’t have a barcode to scan. It must be more cost effective to sell 200 books on a $1 margin, but there’s no soul in it.  

I don’t think these guys are evil. They wouldn’t be doing what they do if there wasn’t a market for the $3 book. Increasingly, though, I wonder if my days at the sales are numbered. At some point the sheer aggravation of dealing with them won’t be weighed out by the utter joy of making a real score. There’s a big part of me that would rather just pay a dealer something close to retail than continue to trip over 101 resellers.