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. 

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Anonymous said...

It is a sad day when what is billed as a Community Book Sale is complicated by rumors (truth?) of privileged arrangements or even outright thievery. I am lucky to live in a small city where the library puts used books for sale on tables at the entrance of the library for 50 cents for hard cover and 25 cents for pocket books, an ongoing sale, first come, first served! Magazines are placed in boxes free for the taking. It goes without saying that the type of library sales described that give favors to dealers or favored patrons, are not fair to "regular" library patrons. If I ever heard of or ran into arrangements such as described in this column, I would complain to the highest civil authority possible about such low class thievery.

Charlie Seng

William Jacobson said...


I really expected your reader to play the "these books were purchased with public funds and the public should have preferred access" card. Barring that:

The stated purpose of the booksale is to raise funds. A smart business tries to do this as effectively and efficiently as possible. It sounds as though the library's strategy, as related here, would do just that - move the most books and generate the most revenue with the smallest hassle. In such a strategy, of course large volume purchasers such as the online bookstore would have preferred access. Not only do they purchase a lot of books but they probably pay the closest to wholesale pricing, thus generating the most revenue. After that, it is not surprising that the workers of the sale might get the next shot. They have the most invested time and effort in the sale and so long as there is no in-dealing and they are purchasing at what the library sees as a fair price, this step also makes sense. It also makes perfect sense that the library would then turn to their "friends of the library" who have paid for the perks and whose funds already go to support the library. Only after that would they turn the remainders out to the public, who pay bottom dollar.

If your reader would like to improve his access, there appears to be several options available. First, he could become a Friend of the Library and share in the perks extended to them. Second, I suspect, he could volunteer to work the booksale and gain even better access. Third, he could open his own bookstore, bid for the contract, and perhaps gain the greatest access. Admittedly all of these come with some effort. If he chooses not to take advantage of these opportunities, then he has little reason to complain about his standing. Anything more is pure entitlement.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA