Sunday, September 29, 2013
Who buys the books when?
Every summer for the past several years, my wife and I attend a public library book sale that occurs right around the July Fourth weekend in Massachusetts. The goal is to raise as much money for the public library as possible.
The sale is massive and lasts for several days. From the minute the sales tents open, the general public and used book dealers pore over the offerings. When the tables get low, more boxes are opened and more books displayed.
While the resellers may pile up more volumes than they plan to take and sometimes slow down perusing time by using smartphones or tablets to check a book's resale price, there's a general collegiality among the customers, who are all vying for the same great find.
On the final day of the sale, when pickings are slimmer, books go for $1 per bag.
A while back a reader from another community told me of her experience with her own community's public library's annual book sale and how it "may not be what it seems, or what it used to be."
Apparently, the library has a contract with an online book dealer who "cherry picks all the good stuff" to buy, she writes. Once the online book dealer has its way, the library then permits volunteers working on the sale to choose from what's left.
Only then do the books go on sale to "friends of the library," who pay a special annual fee first, and then the general public later. My reader says she falls in the latter category "because I'm cheap."
The reader indicated that longtime patrons of the sale who don't fall into special privileged categories have begun to complain and are frustrated by the increasingly slim pickings.
"Is she right, that it's a bit of a rip-off?"
It sounds to me like the makings of a lousy book sale for the general public. I know that on the last day of the community book sale I attend, you might be able to buy a bag of books for a buck, but everything's been really picked over during the prior several days of the sale. My reader's sale sounds like the general public is facing final day pickings right from the get go.
Nevertheless, if the reader's library makes it clear how it is operating and who gets first picks and when, then a buyer has the opportunity to decide whether to bother with the sale. While the community spirit of the book sale may be dampened if the general public knows it's getting the dregs of offerings, if the library determines it can raise the most funds by creating tiers of buyers, then that's a fair decision.
The right thing is to make the rules of the book sale as transparent as possible to all comers.
Granted, my reader's sale doesn't sound like one I'd expect much from if I were a member of the general buying public. The organizers would be wise to determine if the long-term effect of their policy is to drive away so many customers that their fundraising strategy doesn't pay off.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.