My Worst Scouting Day Ever

by Craig Stark

#46, June 27, 2005

Bookselling Proverb #14, and the Plight of Expectation

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It happened on a Saturday, maybe two months ago, and it started out like any other Saturday: I left in the dark, shortly before six, with a list of sales in hand. It was an especially long list this time - over 70 sales strong. I'd culled them from hundreds of ads in the newspaper. When you have this many possibilities, it's difficult not to go into the day without expecting to come across something, somewhere, even if it's only a few books you can put up on a fixed-price venue for $20 or $30. Well, fully 8 hours later, after stopping at over 70 sales, not to mention 8 or 10 thrift shops, what did I come back with?


After years of doing the scouting thing, I've gotten much better at keeping my expectations in check, even when the possibilities are as plentiful as they were on this dark and memorable day. This is an important point, I think, and why I included this concept in BookThink's list of bookselling proverbs:

Expect to find good books, and you won't. Seek to find them, and you will.

As I see it, the problem with expectation is that it blinds you. Expect something good, and, when your mental picture of "good" doesn't happen - and it almost always won't - you're not only disappointed but, if an actual good is there (in, say, a form you didn't expect), you may not see it either. Once discouragement creeps in, there's a tendency to walk right by good books because your general perception is coloring everything "bad." When you're not expecting to find anything of value, the only thing left to do is to pay perfunctory visits and leave - because it's what you do. Since expectation is an emotion, it has a two-headed, antipathetic nature (like pain/pleasure), and a string of disappointments can flip it from positive to negative - perhaps to full-blown discouragement. Once this happens, you may not even have the heart to go on looking.

In my mind, expectation isn't the same thing as hope. Hope isn't an emotion; in one sense, it's a form of knowing. In the case of book scouting, it's the knowledge that books are everywhere, and if you keep putting yourself in a position to find them, you will. Go to a sale with this calmly in mind - seek books, that is - and you won't be disappointed. If there are no books, you'll acknowledge that this wasn't where they were and move on to the next position/possibility. Sooner or later, you'll get to where you need to be, and when you do, you'll have the necessary presence of mind to see what you should buy.

As good as this looks on paper, sometimes it's difficult for me to move through hours and hours of unproductive sales without feeling some disappointment, probably because I'm never entirely free of expectation. It may not be apparent early in the day, but if I strike out at enough sales, it gets exposed eventually. On that day I remember feeling it shortly before noon, and I should've recognized that my scouting perception was impaired - and gone home. Instead, stubbornly reacting to my disappointment, I spent several additional hours searching thrift shops with a severely restricted ability to see anything of value.

Not smart. In all, I spent over 8 hours and half a tank of gas for nothing. I remember thinking on the way home how I could have spent that time listing books I already had and been hundreds of dollars ahead. I also remember thinking, my oh my, what if this had been my first day ever book scouting? Would I have given up on the idea then and there?

Nah. If it'd been my first day, I would've come home with a truck full of books.

Bad ones.

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Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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