First, a probably-too-long preface, to give you an idea of where I’m coming from: you know those book donation bins that you see at shopping malls, schools, parking lots? I am one of the people whose job relies on those things functioning in a predictable manner. Mostly, I’m in the recycling business, as most of what we get is trash — children’s books, beach reading with tattered spines, James Patterson novels (no offense, but his books just aren’t worth anything used). From my experience, I would say one out of ten books I get is salable. Remember, people have children, and children are voracious readers of 12 page books. And they have crayons. Etc. Remember, too, that a great many of you went to college and decided to throw your textbooks into the Donate Books bin many years after your biology textbook was current. So I’m not throwing away books that people will read, for the most part. I’m taking out their trash. The thing is that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. The guy who threw away the Ultimate Guide to the Alaskan Malamute, which retails at $500? That guy’s trash is my treasure. I comb through your trash on a daily basis, I pull the stuff that is at all remotely readable, and I either sell it on Amazon or recycle it due to my business model’s concerns.
So, so, so. All that said. All that said, there’s also this: I do not work for Got Books, which may or may not be a strictly Northeastern U.S. company, but which is evil nonetheless. I hate Got Books. I am trying to take over their bins one at a time, because I actually work for a non-profit here, people.
I convinced my boss that we should have a book sale and saved up all the thousands and thousands of books that I couldn’t sell on Amazon. Thousands. I work in a church basement, and since churches are generally rather large structures, their basements tend to be big too. I take up about an eighth of the space. But prior to this morning, that eighth was filled, top to bottom, with books.
So we’re having a sale, right? And we advertise the sale. And then the people show up.
How can I describe these people? I can describe them, I suppose, by describing Jack. Jack is a former bookseller from Boston, Harvard Square. Retired now, he stumbled upon my operation on a visit to the local farmer’s market, where our non-profit has a booth that sells coffee and, now (I suppose), books. He invited himself to a meeting with my bosses and I. Neither of my bosses were impressed. He is an eccentric, a man who drives a van filled with empty boxes in case he finds a way to load some books into them. All day today — all day every time I meet him — it was, “I’m out of the book business. Oh, no. I hate books.”
For the past three months, he’s slowly become a more regular presence in my little basement dungeon. I’ll hear the unexpected rumble down the wooden ramp, only to see Jack, who has, of course, come to tell me about a new thought that has occurred to him viz. my book business. “You’ve got to have a book sale. I know a few people who could get you books. You need better books. Let me call my friend X or Y. They can probably get you some books.”
Then, this man who ostensibly “hates” books, will spend several days milking and goading old associates from his glory days into giving me thousands and thousands of the most glorious books I can imagine. Picture it: my normal day-to-day is filled with crayon-colored kids’ books, mass markets, and Jodi Piccoult. Jack cajoles the Harvard Bookstore to give me 16 boxes of clean, crisp paperbacks. He convinces some guy with a warehouse and an addiction to give me 36 boxes of hardcovers, university presses, and cookbooks. “You can always get books,” he says. By which he means that he can always get books.
So, right. This is the type of the person we’re talking about. The addict. As a final example of this addiction, let me just say this. Jack showed up this morning at nine as I arrived at work with three boxes of uncorrected proofs (I now have Joan Didion’s next book, which comes out in two months, e.g.). He says, “Ahh, I just came by to give you these.” I say thanks. I have a whole room to set up, to remove chairs and pianos from, move tables to, tables to stack books on, and boxes to fill, so I go inside quickly. He follows about ten minutes later. Seeing that I’m alone, he — all 68 years of him — helps me move furniture, stack books, re-stack books as the madness ensues, and leaves just fifteen minutes before I do, having been there the whole ten and a half hours with me.
Again, this is a man who “hates” books.
In reality, he is obsessed with them and can’t stand it anymore. He’s drunk with books. He’s never going to go to AA.
It began at four (it continues tomorrow, but that’s another story). By three we had a couple people asking to get in. By half past, there was a line. I had come outside to set up the outdoor “we’re going to lure you in with much better books than the sale on the whole has” table. Almost immediately, a woman asked, “Can we start buying these books now?” Christ on a cracker. I haven’t haggled since India. “Um, hum. No, I’d rather you didn’t.” Did that stop any of these vultures from swarming in to see what I had put out? By no means did it do so. I stopped them from taking any of the books, but I didn’t realize what my hesitance had portended. The woman asked if she had time to park her car somewhere else. I told her she had eighteen minutes. She left. I went back downstairs, told my volunteer not to sell any books, or let anyone take anything, and started moving more books.
Well, my boss went upstairs a moment later, and when everyone began asking if they could go in, she said yes. In they swarmed. A few moments later, the woman who had needed to move her car came back and apparently ran with all her might into the booksale.
Many of them carried sheets, which they used to cover their boxes of pre-sorted books. In other words, they rushed into the hall, cherry-picked what they thought would be worth money, stacked it into boxes, put the boxes under the tables, and covered their boxes with sheets, so that no one else could poach their shit. It was amazing. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything like it.
When I went back and forth from my dungeon to the hall, carting around boxes of fresh books and filling gaps left by the customers/book sellers, a few of them would follow me (and my volunteers, including Jack, who became quite friendly with one voluptuous Russian woman) around the room as I filled in gaps, assessing the books along the way. One of them said, awkwardly, “It seems like you’ve got a fan club.” I said, “What?” in that way you do when you haven’t quite heard the first time, but can figure out if you think about it for a second. She replied, “Never mind.”
This went on for three hours, and though many of the pros left after about two, at the end we were kicking people out, because we were tired and we just wanted to get drunk.
Which we did.
UPDATE BY TREVOR: If you bug Tom enough, he promises to start a semi[time period] contest whereby the most thoughtful or entertaining commenter over that [time period] wins his or her choice of book from the featured collection listed at the start of the contest. Now of only we had thoughtful and entertaining commenters. (HA! Reader burn! Best way to build an audience, I always say. Call it the Don Rickles method.)