My Introduction to Book Returns, Or, 'Oh Crap, You Just Destroyed Dianetics!'

When we last left our hero bookseller, she was learning the book biz from her pal, Lou Stein, while trying to avoid the owner’s troll parents, gun totting miscreants, and the tedious cash register. One of the ways of doing this was to learn how to return books. Paperbacks to be exact. How green was I in the bookshop business? Up until that point in time, I didn’t know books were returned. My question-returned to where? Why? Lou set me straight, as much as I could understand, because, frankly, I’m still rather puzzled by the practice.

Yes, Lou admitted, books are shipped back to the publisher in exchange for credit on their next order. Although most books do originate from a publisher, sometimes the bookshop would get urgently needed titles from a ‘jobber’. Sounds like a mechanical toy, right? A jobber is a middleman, a company that supplies a range of publisher’s titles for an increase in price, obviously, than the publisher’s, otherwise no profit. If a bookstore  isn’t on the best of terms with the major publishers, or to say impolitely, they owe their next born to pay for previous orders, the book buyer depends on the jobber to supply what they need without going through the pain of begging Ballentine, or Simon and Shuster to release orders being held until paid. Returns of pub orders help get the store out of debt with them, so the store can order new titles, and then return old titles in order to get new titles. And so on. The return practice is unusual, I’m not sure any other business allows unsold product to be shipped back to the manufacturer.

Well, now I understood the where and why. But how? How do we return all the unsold fat pagged paper? We’d need to fill up the same boxes they arrived in, did we even keep those? Of course not, no room, so how is this done?

When I was a kid, my dad didn’t read books. OK, I need to amend that, he didn’t read decent books. No Dickens, Twain, or even Arthur Hailey. He read Mickey Spillane, and Mickey Spillaine.  Oh, a few others I’d never discovered title or author.

The Pennsauken Mart situated in, you guessed it, Pennsauken, was shaped as a u but with the u closed up–sort of an o, but not round, if you catch my meaning. Not known particularly for its classiness, the building housed what can best be described as less expensive items. Rock bottom price shoes; accessories; ladies foundations-when ladies felt they needed something to contain their masses; velvet Elvis paintings, holograph dogs playing cards; Philly pretzels (if from Philadelphia, no explanation needed, if not, tough luck); cool troll dolls, and a odd little place with books. When cruising through the Mart, one walked down saw dust floors-from the smell, recycled from 1880s saloons–with small stalls of stores on the right, and in the center of the place. You’d walk down one side, curve around to the other, everything out in the open, no doors or major walls to block the visuals. In the center was more cheap crap, including the book depot.

I’d eagerly make the trip there with my dad, trolls were an obsession of mine, and books weren’t too shabby either. But, where my father went, I couldn’t follow. For within the bookstall was a turnstile  you had to pass through, and minors were not allowed. Curious, I’d crane my neck as far as possible, but never determined why the books were being protected from us kids. I couldn’t read titles, because  they  had  NO covers.

This mystery remained until that fateful day in Lorry’s Bookshop when Lou divulged the bookworld’s dirty little secret: paperbacks were *stripped* of their front covers!! The entire book was not returned to the publisher, just the pretty covers! The shock, the horror, the anticipation of ripping apart those books that bugged the crap out of me and I’d dreamed of disposing!

Each stripped cover was placed in a pile of like publisher. Harper’s here, Bantam, there-whoops, didn’t Ballentine merge with Bantam, or was that Dell-better check on that, can’t mix the covers up, don’t need Fawcett returns landing over at Carroll and Graf.

Lou, feeling he’d explained the basics, mistakenly left me, as they say, to my own devices. Bad bad move. I ran willy nilly pulling what I considered claptrap off the wire stands, yanking cover, and cover and cover from each. I began my piles, sticking to the lessons learned, an nice group of Penguins gaining size. Not content to ravish the upstairs lowbrow losers, I dived down the spiral staircase and started in on the ‘overstock’ below. Overstock? The word cannot contain the massiveness of titles spread throughout the earthen caverns. To my eye, miles of pointless books were held hostage here, when they should be liberated from their dungeon and sent up, out, and over, sacrificing their lives for more worthy titles. And the number one useless title? Dianetics by L. Ron  Hubbard. What the hell was Dianetics anyway? I scanned the back cover trying to ascertain the content, it sounded like so much dribble to me, another sort of  ‘self help’ book but with the wacky added extra attraction of having been written by a nut.

And there were a gazillion of them lounging down there! Ohhhh boy. Zip zip zip, I must have stripped at least 100 before detecting the ponderous metal clang indicating Lou was about to join me. He started in with ‘Di, why did you strip the Penguins??? Didn’t I explain they won’t accept stripped books?’ before he saw the remnants of my afternoon’s work.

Lou wasn’t gabby, he spoke when necessary, but I’d never seen him struck dumb, voiceless before. He took one of his huge paws, pushed back his taped glasses and gawked a little more. I, noticing something amiss, at the sense to shut up.

I could see the struggle, the fight within. He cleared his throat, never a good sign. When displeased, Lou would telegraph his feelings with a guttural note, and employees would wait in anticipation as to who it would be directed. Not that most paid any heed to him, they took their cues from the real life trolls, Mr and Mrs. Lorry, and the Lorrys treated him like a orphan bought from the work house and chained to his duties for life. If they had chimneys, he’d be covered in black soot.

“Uh, Di. Dianetics cannot be returned without their covers.” Calm, considerate, factual. “Oh.” That’s the best I could counter with, “Oh.” I gained some spunk when he didn’t continue, and added, “But, who buys this crap? And what idiot bought so damn many?”

Oh God, The Look. The sideways stare, the drill bit of glances, the baleful eye. For those of us who liked Lou and respected him, this was not to be desired. Avoided. The Plague wasn’t avoided the way The Look was.

I tried to recover, to flounder my way around the gigantic miasma of stupidity I’d created. “Oh, OK, Lou, I get it, I’ll not touch another, OK? Would you like me to dispose of the stripped books? Should I gather them up and put them into big garbage bags, maybe get one of the guys to help me? Clean up around here? Of course I need to finish upstairs too, should I go up now, maybe I should just go and pick up where I’d left off, without stripping another thing unless you approve it, right? That would be best, right? Ok, that’s what I’ll do” I bounded up the circular stairs expecting a swirl of tornado to follow.

It didn’t. He didn’t. He didn’t come back up at all, not until his shift was over, and he grabbed his tan windbreaker as he shambled out the door. I felt like crap, like an idiot, like a big fat failure. I should have thought before speaking. He ordered all paperbacks before he bestowed the privilege to me. In my frenetic way, I’d cost the store some dough, although, those Dianetics had been down there since forever, and I doubt would have been sold, they hadn’t up to this point. Still, it was the principal of the thing, or something like that, and more to the point, I’d disappointed him. He trusted me with a responsibility and I’d gone wacky with power destroying stock without green-lighting it first.

I was determined to apologize and make it up to him, a few days pounding the cash register was in my future. But Lou wasn’t one to hold anger, not with me. I did apologize, he waved it off, and we went back to our duties, me mindful of the list of strippable publishers he’d supplied me.

When the Bantam rep came in next, I handed him pile after pile of jackets. The dismay, the physical recoil at the sight alarmed me. Wasn’t this how it was done? We strip, they take?

Once the rep was gone Lou quietly explained “you never return an excess amount of covers at one time, it ruins the reps numbers, creates problems for him at the company.”

Instead of my flinging every title I felt deserved to go, even if sales sucked, the idea was to return in restrained quantities, usually after an order was placed, thereby not overwhelming the rep with losses when no orders were made. I finally got the gist of this practice, and going forward, ordered new titles, then went around choosing carefully those that were a drain on the store, and returned accordingly. The Bantam rep didn’t cringe anymore upon sight of me, Lou’s Look was reserved for other mistakes, and I now knew what it was my father was buying, illegal contraband.

Because the physical part of the book, the content, was to be destroyed. Thrown out, ditched, pulverized. It is illegal to sell any paperback without a front cover. Another great blow to my preconceived ideas of the kindly bookstore’s functions.

So, we did need boxes again. But for the trash. The reader in me was crying ‘no no no’! It took me quite a while to acclimate to this foreign idea. But I did.

One day, I saw Lou and the day manager, Ray, pulling boxes I knew were filled with stripped paperbacks into the Deli next door. Oh ho! What nefarious thing were they up to? Oh, man, I would be furious and heartbroken if Lou was illegally selling these books after his pious attitude.

So, ever the intrepid pain, I questioned them, in the deli. Ray, shushed me, even though no one from the store except we three were present.

Lou softly explained; “Once in a while we send a couple of boxes of stripped books up to the veterans hospital. A bus driver friend delivers them for us. No money is given or received. They’ve nothing to read up there, and life is tough enough, and a few books for some relief  isn’t a terrible thing. The Lorrys don’t know–even though they wouldn’t be out dough, you can imagine their reaction. Plus, the pubs would be furious, their theory being the vets would shove money out for these books if we didn’t give them away, which in this case, and probably no other, isn’t true. So, don’t think you can take a box home and distribute them among friends and neighbors, this is a unique situation and not to be thought as a doorway for taking other boxes, kapish?”

I kapished. And respected the big guy that much more for his huge heart. I couldn’t help though, asking, “did you include any Dianetics”?

Suffice it to say, I scurried back into the store, thereby avoiding long term damage from The Look.


4 thoughts on “My Introduction to Book Returns, Or, 'Oh Crap, You Just Destroyed Dianetics!'”

  1. P. J., LOL! Some mass markets are OK, especially since they are more affordable than trade. It was just so horrible to realize you’d stripped things that were supposed to keep their clothes on! Ha ha.

  2. Funny story! I worked in a bookstore in L.A. and Scientology people would always order 50 copies of every new Hubbard title.When we asked for a deposit explaining that Bridge publications (Scientology’s Publishing arm) didn’t take returns the phone usually hung up right away. It seemed someone (I wonder who?) wanted us to be part of some circular Ponzi style publishing scheme. Praise Xenu! Are we all CLEAR now?

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