A Cautionary(?) Tale: Or, There are no Morals in Book Selling

A Cautionary(?) Tale: Or, There are no Morals in Book Selling

We all get jumpy at times – especially if you have an open shop and you start to see your monthly rent running like a cab meter in your head every time you close your eyes and it’s been a week of customers few and far between, mostly browsing or idly thumbing through the bargain rack. Funny too, because it looks like there are humans outside, wandering about, some look like they might have a few coins in their pockets jingling about, but the cash register collects dust. The same certainly happens online – we have those weeks where the orders just stop and you’re forced into that familiar bookseller position of concocting stories about why this is happening.

Bad Weather
School vacations
Economy looks sketchy/Stock market is down
ABE has disappeared my books
Amazon disappeared my books
My books are terrible
I knew this day would come, everyone just stopped reading at once.
Once we got a book about dead people – how only the dead can see the dead, etc. and became convinced that we and our customers were dead and that explained all the people walking blithely past the shop – they just couldn’t see us. Sometimes the simple explanations are best.
Anyway, I was having one of these months last year – not a week, a whole month of dreaming of drowning in unsalable books, wondering if I should start selling something sensible like Pokemon cards or malt liquor – and it was compounded by the beginning of the housing slump which meant we weren’t getting calls to clean out houses and our stock was starting to feel thin and a little stale. So, I noticed an interesting auction on Ebay – someone was getting out of the book business and selling 20 some odd thousand books cheap, real cheap. I knew they’d mostly be terrible old bookstore stock, but for the price if they were only horrible, it was going to be a win. A win involving back breaking labor, but a win nonetheless.
So we exchanged a few emails with questions about the books – found out they were from a few shops that went under, that the current owner was getting out of the book business to concentrate on Civil War textiles (note to file: There was probably an alarm that should have gone off in here somewhere, but I present my foolishness unadorned for your benefit) sounded like they’d been cherry picked somewhere along the line, but still a nice bunch of dreck, as they go. We decided to go for it – this despite (or because of) the fact that I’d just had my first child and was saddled by fatherhood, lack of sleep, and the pressure to get this business going, pronto.
Every time something is going to go terribly wrong, there are foreshadowing missteps that not only make you cringe when you look back, but also provide ample time to anticipate your undoing. This time we get a call for delivery only it’s the wrong day and they have them on a truck without a lift. We’ll need to pay $200 and they’ll put them on the right truck – and deliver them next week – no problem, what’s another $200, right? This is why they call if hemorrhaging money not spewing money. So the books arrive on 20 some odd pallets at the storage location we’re using, and we start to go through them. It takes about six seconds to realize we’ve been had – then about ten minutes of working up a scenario where it isn’t as bad as we think and salvageable, don’t worry, only to backslide into the realization that:
1) It’s at least as bad as it seemed as first
2) We are now the proud owner of 20,000 useless books
3) It’s apparently (who makes these laws) illegal to set fire to books at storage facilities or to throw them onto the conveniently located railroad tracks.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What happened is they didn’t send a mixed bunch of mostly terrible books like we’d hoped, but sent boxes upon boxes of remainders. Bad ones. The sort that looked like they were born as remainders – the book equivalent of straight to video. Around 15,000 of the 20 some odd thousand books were 14 titles – the rest were as advertised – dreck with some high points. So what to do? File a Paypal claim – email the seller (maybe it was a mistake), etc. But it wasn’t a mistake – and Paypal, bless their furry little hearts, doesn’t refund shipping costs. This is funny, of course, because 2/3 of the cost of the books was shipping. What’s not funny is that with no loading dock, and no forklift, shipping the books back is going to cost more than the whole thing cost in the first place. You can rent a forklift but between the cost and the all too vivid image of myself operating it and the ensuing damage to the storage facility, nearby cars, loved ones, pets, it seemed like a bad idea.
I contemplate loading them into a U-Haul and delivering them myself to the seller – perhaps covering them in feces and setting them on fire so that when they went to step on them to put them out…I contemplate other things that my mother wouldn’t approve of. I move on…no, I really don’t, I’m stuck there in bileville for quite some time, imagining divine retributions, natural disasters…bad thoughts.
But this isn’t good for me – not to mention that it’s pointless. I got screwed, the wheels keep turning, so we move to the mitigation of disaster phase.
1) Try to put some boxes on Ebay in bulk – one book is in some mild demand and we can move a few boxes for $10-20 a piece. This is not a good use of time.
2) Find someone to take the rest off our hands – as I’m sure most of you know, this is much more difficult than you’d think. Americans love free stuff – unless it’s books or PBS.
3) At least clear out the storage facility so that the nightmare where I’m stuck behind a pile of remainders and someone forgets I’m there and locks me in overnight, ends.
4) Try to find a moral in this.

1-3 were doable – 4? I’m not sure. While generally an optimist, I must admit that a positive side of this one was becoming hard to identify. Most of the lessons that I could have learned from this – don’t buy bulk lots on Ebay, don’t take on 20,000 books without looking at them – I either had learned already or had proven resistant to. I knew these and had decided after much thought that this was the exception. Ha. Is that a moral? Too early to tell. What complicates matters – and what caused me to revisit my blunder, was that we’ve been going through the last 20 or so boxes of cast offs and ne’er do wells (we whipped through the first 150 or so, but it was as if, despite ourselves, we didn’t want it to end and the last of the boxes festered downstairs, became powerful as we avoided them) and pulled out a scarce signed copy of a Hollywood memoir. Sold it three days later for $800.

If I stop thinking about it now, this will have to pass for a happy ending.

Pazzo Books
4268 Washington St.
Roslindale, MA 02131

7 thoughts on “A Cautionary(?) Tale: Or, There are no Morals in Book Selling”

  1. That’s when you find a local art supplies store and see if they’ll buy them by the pound as craft material. It’s slightly better than lighting them on fire.

    Though I have a woodstove to heat this place in the winter, so things that appear to have been savaged by squirrels and are utterly unreadable sometimes server as tinder…

  2. I’ve often imagined a combination book chipper/compressor that would make wood stove pellets for me, but I don’t think it exists; yet. Those remainders would have heated the shop for years.

    Not that I condone book burning – in general, anyway.

  3. A wonderful story Tom, but you missed the chance at sweet revenge. I’d have sent the seller an email about the find – perhaps even exagerating it – THREE valuable books worth a total of $2000!

  4. A horrific story – $800 for 20,000 books works out to 4 cents each minus your cost and processing time – but the sociopath who sold them to you also took a severe beating.

    Platitudes that can help us through times:
    “Good experiences become memories while bad ones become lessons!” and
    “It’s not what you get it’s how you handle it!”

    Thanks for sharing and keeping us alert.

  5. Hoho 🙂 ….funny and quiet an interesting post….never thought that way….but yes the situation is likely to arise unconditionally at any given point of time when its late noon and not even a single customer has knocked at your store..but not to worry…..i am a regular visitor of book blogs and when i see so many posts, comments pouring on book discussions, i wonder if people are really active into reading books even in these days….so till these people are around, you need not worry of that day.. 🙂

    everyone likes to see money flowing into their pockets, be it from any source.,..i recently sold my used/second-hand books at A1Books.com and when i got that money in return, i realized that it is much more feasible that to have those books catching dust on my shelf…

  6. I bought something similar back when surface Mbay was around, though nothing like the quantity you bought. What was pictured on ebay as reasonable quality stock arrived as the US equivalent of Mills and Boon (Harlequins) and hideous exlibrary. I fired off an angry email to the seller who promptly refunded but never again.
    The good thing was it made me do my sums and decide it would be cheaper (and much more fun) to fly over and chose my own.
    There is certainly a point where the storage costs outrun the resale value of the books at which time paper recycling is definitely a better option.
    At least you got one decent book out of them!

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