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.
It turns out I’ve reached a point in my curmudgeonlyness, where I’m just not willing to stand around baking for six hours in hundred-degree weather, likely getting rained on, and surrounded by 30,000 potential plague carriers, even when the reward is seeing two of the bands I consider absolute pillars of rock music in the last three decades.
Ten degrees cooler, not as likely to be soaked to the skin, or maybe even just a little less plague-y, and I’d have probably made different decisions. There were a lot of strikes working against the original plan for today. As it is, I seem to have woken up in a mood this morning that would only be exacerbated by any of those three factors. It’s all an almost iron clad guarantee that I wouldn’t have in any way enjoyed the experience. So yeah, I’m taking a pass on the Hella Mega Tour despite the two year wait and general excitement of the last few days.
I’m a little sad at letting this opportunity slide past, but there will be other, hopefully more favorable opportunities. In an effort to even the scales, I snuck off this afternoon to one of my very favorite used book shops and brought home a few choice bits by way of compensation. It’s not the full rock concert experience I was planning to have today, but it wasn’t a bad trade off as far as I’m concerned.
1. Diminishing supply. My to be read shelves are starting to look a bit picked over despite the regular trickle of online orders over the last nine months. Sure, there’s still an easy 400 or so lined up in the fiction section and another 150 in non-fiction, but the gaps that weren’t there when the Great Plague started are starting to be noticeable. I’d usually spend the week after Christmas casting net through used book stores and thrift shops in a geographical area that stretched north to south from Philadelphia to DC and east to west from Dover to Frederick. It’s the second of what are historically my two big, bulk buying weeks I’ve missed this year. I’m not at much risk of running short on reading material, but I do miss the hunt – and finding the occasional rare-ish first edition, or signed copy, or the one long out-of-print volume I need to make the set. Book shops are probably a low threat environment, eminently suited for social distancing, but every trip out increases the chance of being exposed unnecessarily. With vaccines now ramping up to full rate production and being shipped out by the millions, it feels like a stupid time to force old patterns to fit present circumstances. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
2. Staying put. As I sit here finalizing this post, it’s Christmas Eve morning. Tomorrow will be the first Christmas in 42 years I won’t wake up in the shadow of Savage Mountain. Like a salmon driven by thousands of generations of history to swim back up stream to the gravel beds where they were born, the trip home for Christmas was as inviolable part of my yearly calendar no matter where in the country I found myself living. Staying put this year is absolutely the right decision… even though there’s a deep, primordial part of my brain is screaming that something is wrong.
3. Shipping. I ordered a book from a shop in Indiana on the 7th of December. It shipped out on the 10th. It pinged in various places on the 12th and 13th before coming to rest in York, Pennsylvania in the 19th, where according to the helpful USPS tracking website it hasn’t been seen since. By contrast, the package I currently have in transit from southern Sweden was picked up by UPS on December 22nd and flown through the night across the Atlantic bloody Ocean. It arrived in Philadelphia, and cleared customs on the 23rd, was driven overnight to New Castle, Delaware and now, on the 24th, is loaded on a truck for delivery. I absolutely paid more for the UPS delivery than I did for the package shipped through the postal service, but if that’s the cost of actually getting what you order in a timely manner, it’s a price I’ll happily pay. I fully understand that things ordered in December sometimes take a bit longer than usual to arrive, but come on, man.
1. Suppression of civil liberties. See a lot of news articles that include a one liner that “There is concern that the response to COVID-19 impinges on civil liberties,” but I rarely see the next sentence. I almost never see the sentence after that. Where’s the follow-on discussion to that statement? Government absolutely must respond to this as a public health crisis, but responding doesn’t mean that citizens forgo all other rights and freedoms under the Constitution. If it does, I have no idea why we’re bothering to keep anyone alive anyway.
2. Platitudes. I’ve seen a veritable cornucopia of blog posts and status updates positing in a variety of ways “in these troubled times we should just all be kind.” Bugger that. It’s in troubled times that we collectively and individually need to knuckle down, handle our business (whether it’s personal or professional), and do the hard work of living. In the face of troubles is the very last time we should find ourselves curled into the fetal position having a never-ending cry. If ever in our life there was a time to embrace the stiff upper lip of our forbearers, this would be it.
3. Unresponsive retailers. I’m doing my level best to keep small bookshops afloat during the Great Plague. I’m channeling a fair amount of money through online shops around the country and across the water because I value these businesses and want as many of them as possible to come out on the other side of this thing. Now having said that, my great love of small booksellers doesn’t mean I’m going to overlook all the old forms. I still need them to respond to email when an order doesn’t seem to have budged in almost three weeks. Even a simple “Hey, we’re closed up momentarily while the plague passes” would be sufficient. Failing that, I have to start getting the people who run the sales platform involved in a customer dispute cause us all a bunch of grief that could have easily been avoided.
In tense and uncertain times there’s a tendency for all of us to look towards our own personal bubble of responsibility. That’s not a bad thing. Taking care of kith and kin first feels like it could be our oldest instinct.
There’s no point in denying that some people are going to die as a direct result of this virus. Not acknowledging that would be foolish and wrong. For most of us – the vast majority – coronavirus could well end up being not much more than a monumental inconvenience – a way point in life we’ll use to measure other moments against. Twenty years from now we’ll ask whether something happened before or after COVID-19 the same way we do now with September 11th.
That’s all a prelude to saying sooner or later we’ll all get back to living “normal” lives, with the rhythm of nights out, family gatherings, and well stocked supermarket shelves restored. If you accept that there will be a return to normalcy, you owe it to your future self to spend some time thinking about what you want that future world to look like.
In that spirit, I went online last night and placed a few orders for books that have been lingering on my “to read” list. It was nothing crazy – Just four orders each costing less than $15. Each one of those sales went to small, independent book shops. It’s a niche market to be sure, but one I have a vested interest in preserving through the current economic uncertainty. For these small businesses, every dollar coming in will matter as they fight to make good on their rent or finding a way to keep paying their staff. Keeping these businesses alive is important.
Those who have the ability to do so have an obligation to make sure the smalls, locals, and independents are still alive and kicking when we return to normalcy. You’ll regret it if we don’t.