November 10, 2014
Sarah and I have been engaged in a gradual process of downsizing, and one of the ways we’ve been doing that is by shrinking our extensive collection of books. Not long ago we did another round of culling and pulled five boxes of books off the shelves. Then, in keeping with what we’ve done many times before, we lugged our boxes around to bookstores in order to sell them.
Prior experience suggested that we’d have the best luck with specific bookstores. Several times I’ve sold books to Henderson’s and Michael’s in Bellingham; the former in particular has always paid top dollar for books, which is reflected in their excellent on-shelf inventory. We have reason anyway to occasionally visit Bellingham, so not long ago we hauled our boxes northward.
But it proved disappointing. We used their handcart to wheel our five boxes in; the stony-faced buyer picked out about 25 books, and we wheeled five boxes back to the car. Michael’s, which is across the street from Henderson’s, was not buying at all, only offering store credit.
With diminished enthusiasm, we headed back south. Our next stop was Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Like Henderson’s, they carefully picked out a small stack of books and gave us back the rest. Although I was tempted to visit Magus Books in the U District—in my experience, they’ve always been interested in more academically oriented books—the day had already gotten long for little gain. Therefore, our last stop was Weasel Half-Price Books, which gave us a handful of change for the remaining four boxes. Presumably we could have demanded back the books they were not interested in, but by then we we'd lost pretty much all of our energy for dealing with the boxes, even to donate them to the library.
All in all it was a heartbreaking experience. The web has been a good tool for those who like books. Sites like Abebooks have created a global market for used books, so that a place like Henderson’s can offer its inventory not just to those in the environs of Bellingham, WA, but to anyone with an internet connection. But the internet has also brought a lot more precision to this market; a bookseller has a much better idea today of what a book is worth—or not worth—on the open market. One effect certainly has been that the buyers at all these bookstores are much choosier than they might have been 15 years ago, when (I suspect) buying decisions were still reliant on a dash of instinct.
More than that, and a fact that’s hard for me to accept, is that used books are a commodity of diminishing value. We collected those books over decades, and each acquisition had personal meaning to us. I could easily have spent an hour pulling books out of the boxes and explaining to the buyers at Henderson’s or Third Place or Half-Price why I bought the book, and when, and why I’d kept it all these years, and why it was a book sure to appeal to some other reader. But they don’t care about your stories, a fact that’s all too obvious when you’re standing at their counter, meekly awaiting a payment that represents a tiny fraction of your investment—financial and otherwise—in the books you’ve handed over.
No one really wants my old VCR tapes or CDs or even DVDs much anymore, either, although I don’t have as much emotional investment in those as I do in books. And I can’t really fault booksellers for their choosiness, since their continued success is dependent on hard-headed decisions about their inventory.
We still have five bookshelves filled with books at home, and we'll continue to downsize. I think I might be done with trying to sell the books, though. I'm not sure I want to experience the sadness of seeing how little all these lovely books are worth to anyone else but us.