Stolen Any Good Books Lately?

by Craig Stark

#11, 9 February 2004

Moral Clarity at the FOL Sale

Inventory quality. Is there anything more important than this? It can make or break you as a bookseller. If nobody buys your books, you're done. But what about the cost of acquisition? Important as well. Good books can be had everywhere - for a price. The key is to keep that price to a minimum, and if you don't, you'll be no better off than the penny bookseller who, by necessity, digs in dumpsters for packaging material.

Many of us attempt to minimize our expenses by purchasing at least part of our inventory in traditionally low-priced venues. Estate sales, garage sales, FOL sales and so on. Unfortunately, things have gotten very competitive in recent years. Pricier as well. More and more booksellers now compete for the good books available at these sales, and unless you arrive early and/or attend more sales, you might be coming home with fewer and fewer books.

Some booksellers short circuit this process. Or attempt to. They might arrive a day early at a garage sale, for example, hand a $20 bill to the seller, and ask to come in. Sometimes the answer is yes. Estate liquidators may skim the cream before the sale takes place. FOL volunteers, thrift store employees - some may do the same. Booksellers who take a more conventional approach to inventory hunting may question the ethics of this, but there it is.

In a recent Americana Exchange article, "Beyond the Zero Sum Game: An Approach to Creating Mutually Beneficial Supplier Relationships," bookseller Renee Magriel Roberts discusses another short-circuit strategy for acquiring quality books - developing exclusive consignment relationships with libraries. Basically, Roberts assists libraries in identifying valuable books, then sells them and returns half the proceeds to the library. Ostensibly this produces more revenue for the participating library, which otherwise might have sold a $100 book for as little as a dollar at an FOL sale.

Ethical? I think most of us would agree that it is, perhaps even applaud this approach, though its effect is to eliminate yet another source of quality inventory for those of us who aren't Roberts. If I have any problems with it at all, it's the implication that this business model occupies the high moral ground while the rest of us (those who buy $100 books for a buck) creep on our bellies in the low-lying swamps. If this characterization seems strong, consider the following excerpts from the article:

"In what was a near-mob situation of slathering booksellers waiting at the door, somebody grabbed my arm to yank me out of their way. When I turned around, I didn't see a bookseller, someone who thinks, what I saw was a greedy guy, waiting to steal some totally undervalued book, from a library that could surely use all the money they could raise."

"Libraries always need money. So to participate in a mass - what else can I call it? - theft of library books just did not feel good."

"So, we decided to do something different. Instead of buying (stealing) from libraries we began developing relationships with themů"

I've been to many, many FOL sales, and I must say, having my activities classified as thievery takes me aback. Yes, there have been occasions when I've paid a buck for a $100 book. There have also been occasions, many more than I'd like to admit, when I've paid a buck for a $1 book - that is, guessed wrong. Yes, guessed. Well over half the time, book buying is a guessing game for me, and I've yet to meet a bookseller, no matter how experienced, who doesn't guess. Often. With experience, my guessing gets better and better, but it's a creature that never changes its spots. It was guessing when I started; it's guessing now.

Umpteen million books have been printed since Mr. Gutenberg bound his first Bible, and it's utterly impossible for any bookseller to know the value of more than a fraction of them. Given the volatility of today's market, even if it was possible to nail down values of every last book in existence on Monday, by Friday much of this information would be obsolete.

FOL sales are not - decidedly not - the moral equivalent to throwing Christians to the Lions. Libraries are not sacred victims, nor are booksellers predators. Certainly one can make the argument that Roberts' system nets libraries more revenue, and I don't doubt for a moment that it could - for high-dollar books. But what happens on the low end? Suppose a library consigns its best books and sells the rest at a conventional FOL sale? Does the FOL sale suffer? You bet it does. Maybe not immediately, but in time I absolutely guarantee that booksellers will stop attending sales that yield few or no high-dollar books.

Ultimately, it would be interesting to see if revenues derived from the sale of high-dollar books via consignment would exceed losses experienced at the corresponding watered-down FOL sale, and this is assuming that all books were priced at $1 or less in the first place - an often mistaken assumption. Anyway, my guess is it would be close to a wash.

The important thing to recognize here is that FOL sales already are win-win situations. Libraries profit handsomely on our bad guesses (and of course non-booksellers who buy books to read). In turn, we profit on our good guesses, and everybody's happy. While researching an article I wrote last year about the massive, twice-annual Alachua County Library Sale in Gainesville, Florida, I had the opportunity to interview Book Sale Chairman Anne Hemme. Let me tell you something; this was not an unhappy woman, and the library anything but a loser. During a three-day sale proceeds approached $150,000. You can imagine the impact this kind of revenue has on the Alachua Library System.

Interestingly, ACL utilizes volunteers to identify valuable books. These volunteers aren't booksellers (though some are collectors). They've simply learned how to use search engines - something that can be taught in a matter of minutes - and have the ability to apply common sense to the evaluation process. They look up promising books at Abebooks, and, if prices are strong, they discount them some, insert a printout of the comparables, and place them in the "Collector's Area" during the sale. The rest go out to the main floor. No need to consign them at all - in fact, what this approach does is call into question the moral rectitude of Roberts' business model as well. Using the same logic applied to booksellers of my ilk, one could argue that consignors also take advantage of libraries by extracting profits that the libraries could probably realize themselves.

There's one more thing worth noting here. If I had been given the opportunity to come to the Alachua sale a day early and purchase the entire lot for $150,000, I would've lost my shirt. For every book worth reselling, there were perhaps 50 or 100 that would have netted next to nothing. This is typical at FOL sales. As I recall, I spent between $400 and $500 and perhaps profited $1,000. Not exactly grand theft.

The same moral principles that I apply to FOL sales are just as valid when applied to estate sales, garage sales, and any other venue. There's more guessing involved, and similarly, the guesses aren't always good ones. Moreover, on those occasions when I'm not guessing - that is, when I come across a book I know to be valuable - it's not my obligation to inform the seller that I ought to pay more than $1 for it. My expertise is hard won. What knowledge I have of books has come by dint of long hours of work and significant risk of money that could have more sensibly been spent on something else. Is there to be no profit from this? Please.

Let's look at several concrete examples.

I arrived late at a local estate sale last month, and usually this means only one thing - nothing left but leftovers. This time was different. There was a small collection of books in the family room (all pertaining to a particular sport, but all losers) and another small collection of cookbooks in the kitchen (again, losers one and all). On the kitchen counter, however, there was a book that somebody had apparently picked up from the family room, thought better about buying, and left it in the kitchen on the way out. There it was, in plain view, to everyone who passed by.

When I opened it, I froze. An inscription leaped off the half title page. It'd been signed by a legend, far and away the most famous figure ever to compete in this sport. For $8 I had to take a chance that the inscription was authentic because I knew that online comparables for this man's signed books and photographs were in excess of $2,000. When I brought the book to the cashier to pay for it, she said, "Oh, I'm glad somebody is buying this. I thought the signature was interesting." "Yes," I said, "I thought so too." And left.

Did I feel guilty for not telling her that the book was the bargain of all bargains? Absolutely not. This was what was offered for sale at $8, and this is what I paid. The estate liquidator had had a wide-open, weeks'-long opportunity to research it in advance of the sale, 100's of other buyers had passed it by, and because I knew it had potential - had acquired the knowledge necessary to make this evaluation (another interesting story, by the way) - I'd earned the right to profit it from it. This liquidator had doubtless already profited from many mistakes that other buyers had made that morning. This is how things work: sometimes we win; sometimes we lose; and it's this very system that keeps buyers like me coming back.

Alternately, there have been occasions when I've felt sympathy for sellers and responded accordingly. At one of the first estate sales I ever attended, an obviously distraught wife was selling off her deceased husband's things. The house was also for sale, and in talking to her I learned that she could no longer afford to live there. I picked out several dozen books and asked her how much she wanted for them. $5. I gave her $20, told her to keep the change, and walked off before she could protest. Here's the thing. In my mind, I didn't pay $20 for those books. I paid $5. The $15 was something else entirely. What you call a gift. It's important to make this kind of distinction because if things get mixed up in your mind, serious mistakes of judgment can follow.

Which brings me back to libraries. Roberts believes that they are sacrosanct:

"This is particularly upsetting to me because I believe libraries are sacred spaces. I haunted the 23rd Street Library in New York, which was housed in a building that resembled some medieval castle, and the first time I went to the 42nd Street Library reading room I felt like a pilgrim who had just walked into the Holy of Holies."

I don't for one fleeting moment share this view. Libraries are government institutions that are built and operated by taxpayer revenue - in other words, we pay for them. The buildings that some of them are housed in may be architecturally moving, even to the level of exuding what could be described as a sacred aura, but sacred themselves? No. Sacredness, if it exists at all, does so in the human spirit, not on concrete foundations.

Roberts also believes that libraries merit our sympathy:

"Libraries always need money."

Of course they do, but it's a different need entirely than my need of money. I need money to survive. A library, no matter how useful it may be to, say, downtrodden, victimized outcasts of our society who otherwise wouldn't have access to its resources, is not itself a downtrodden, victimized outcast, as noble as its mission might be. Whatever nobility (or sacredness) is associated with libraries can only be attributed to those who are responsible for their existence and maintenance. Who would that be? Well, partly us!

Assuming, for the moment, that Roberts is indeed helping libraries realize greater revenues, are these libraries more deserving of money than me or you? During the years that I've been writing how-to articles, I've gotten a number of emails from readers who were very much down on their luck, usually because of illness or disability, and very desperately needed assistance, even if it came in the form of insider knowledge they could use to quickly build a book business. Because of their sincerity and willingness to work hard, they deserved to be helped, and for the life of me I would never begrudge them buying a $100 book for a buck at an FOL sale. Would you? The rest of us may not be as desperate, but the principle doesn't change because we drive a new car. Business is business. Charity is charity. And may the two never commingle.

A final point before I shut up. There seems to be a widespread misperception, given further and unfortunate reinforcement in Roberts' article, that used booksellers (and other resellers) are greedy, overly-aggressive predators that would think nothing of shoving you aside to grab a book or other valuable item. I have no idea how many sales I attend in a typical year, but it's easily 1,000 or more. Based on the experience of having done this for years, I can state with almost statistical certainty that the above characterization is patently untrue in at least 99 out of 100 cases. The great majority of buyers I come into contact with are basically decent people. Yes, many of them are serious about what they do, but let's not forget what this is all about. They need money to survive.

The conclusion? My advice is, the next time you buy a $100 book for a buck, celebrate. Reserve guilt for times when you've done something wrong.

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