Monday, January 30, 2006


Library sale etiquette and strategy

I received this comment about my last post:

Do you have a strategy towards these sales? I arrived half an hour after my local library's most recent Friends' sale and found at least three booksellers already there who had run through the aisles, selected a stack of books, and were hoarding them in the corner. One group was scanning ISBNs and sending them to a person offsite to scan to see if the book held any value. I understand their impetus and strategy, but I will say it was very irksome, as an individual coming in to look at a leisurely pace. I thought that if I ever owned a used bookstore, that would be one of the less enviable ventures.

I have a lot to say on the many issues that this person raises, so I'll address them here at length rather than in a short reply on the comments page.

First, of course I have a strategy (or, as our esteemed president would say, strategery). I am a used bookseller and I want to buy inexpensive books for my shop on a regular basis. And I'm also a book collector, and want inexpensive books for my own library. At the shop, I keep my book prices low (unless the books are very unusual or rare) and pass the good deals that I've gotten at library sales on to my customers. So, I shop many many library sales throughout the year. First suggestion: arrive early. I'm a wee bit compulsive so I'm usually at least an hour early. And I like socializing in line with other dealers (most of whom are colleagues and friends). It's a good chance to catch up. When a sale first opens, everyone fans out and I really feel that everyone has an equal opportunity to spot the "good" books, whether they are dealers or not. I also feel strongly that there are enough books in the world for everyone, so there's no need to be greedy, rambunctious, obnoxious, or rude at a library sale. The people shopping around me are my friends and customers and fellow booklovers. I want to stay on the good side of the library volunteers. They work very hard to put on these sales, and deserve our respect and goodwill at all times. That said, of course I have seen behavior that makes me blush for my profession. However, please know that the only library sales I've ever been to where I could browse at a leisurely pace were the ones at which I was the only person there (and what a pleasure they were). If you want a quiet leisurely browse, a library sale is not the place to be. It's usually mayhem (I'm thinking about the Bar Harbor library sale every August, in particular - a huge sale at the height of the tourist season).

Once inside a sale, I stack up books in a corner, too, with my coat thrown over them, or I shop while my husband takes armloads of books from me every few minutes. Before I check out, I usually sort my books, in my little corner, just to check for copious highlighting and mold or mildew, which I won't allow in my shop. The dealers you saw calling in ISBNs... what can I say about that. The first thing that comes to mind is that they must not know their business very well, if that's how they are deciding what decent, saleable books are. Or they must be internet-only dealers. To them, Faugh, I say. Personally, I don't know anyone who does that at sales, and I don't think the library volunteers should allow it, unless perhaps the sale is a multi-day one in which these dealers' rejects stand a chance of being bought by someone else. I go to one sale every summer at which one of the rules of the sale (a rule sheet is passed out before the sale opens) is that if you pick a book up and put it in your bag or box or pile in the corner, you've bought it. No culling allowed. This is fine with me, I'm just more careful as I shop. But every sale is different.

Now, about that last point: ...if I ever owned a used bookstore, that would be one of the less enviable ventures. I myself LOVE library sales. I consider them fun free-for-alls (or nearly free). I love walking into a school gymnasium filled with eight-foot tables of books. I just love being where many books are gathered together (libraries, shops, booksales, antiquarian bookfairs). Some of the best books I've ever had in my bookselling career I found at library sales for a dollar or two each. That's the treasure-hunting aspect of this business. However, I know a few booksellers who hate sales, hate the hurly-burly nature of them, and don't shop at them at all. I love the thrill of finding a great book. What is a great book? Well, it can be anything I consider great. I worked in a new-book store for nearly seven years, then sold books in an antiques shop and online for five years, and now have had my shop for almost five years, so I've got some book-knowledge stored up, and I know what I like. I also love being surprised by books I've never seen or heard of or read about before. There's always something new.

A final note: some of the best books I've ever found at sales were found an hour in, after many of the other bookdealers left. So ignore those dealers in the corner, and look at what's still on the tables. And remember, when you see bookdealers scarfing up books quickly at library sales, that the library group wants us to be there. We are their best customers, year after year.

I welcome further thoughts on these issues. I've been attending library sales for over ten years now, and I've got a lot of good stories - anyone else?

When I was a kid living in the St. Louis area there used to be a HUGE annual booksale in the summer, organized by I-don't-know-who, and on the last day, to clear out the leftovers, they'd sell you all you could put in a shopping cart for $15, all you could put in a grocery bag for five, all you could carry away for a buck. Age 8, 9, 10, I'd always get an armload of books (and records, which they also sold), choosing by cover, title, whim. I discovered some very strange, often delightful things that way: H. Allen Smith's Write Me a Poem, Baby; The Adventures of Homer Fink. Oh, and one of the records I scooped up was an early version of Alice Cooper's Elected (called "Reflected")—I sold that for a decent sum of cash when I was a teen. So I fully agree that a picked-over sale is well worth picking over again!

Ben F.
I attend FOL sales regularly, usually on the first night, and just as regularly find passed-over gems still sitting on the tables on the last day. I agree strongly that hording is not very professional. We should remember those dealers don't deal in everything, they each have their niche, and when one niche is left untapped, that is how the littlest gem gets passed right by time and time again.
Thanks for the response. I guess the real issue was tact. You're right, there were a lot of booksellers there that were respectable and not irritating. There were plenty of books to go around, it was that particular couple scanning books that were really bothersome, especially as they camped out near the center of the room. That and the hoarding w/o any idea of what they had. I enjoy book sales immensely, but it was the first time I had been so actively annoyed by other purchasers.

And, I should say, I've been to many sales, and this was the first time I've actively noticed or been annoyed by booksellers.

As for the leisurely v. more active pace? You're right, of course. Perhaps on that day I should have been browsing the aisles of a favorite store, rather than a wonderful discount sale.

And, I will say, finding the books I did right next to the hoarding couple was especially enjoyable.
uibristol, you were perfectly right to be irritated by the ISBN scanners, I would have been, too, and equally gleeful to find good books nearby. I'm glad you brought it up, and I'm also glad you go to many book sales - the times I've seen unsavory incidents have not deterred me, and I hope this one didn't deter you. Tact and kindess are indeed paramount. Let us agree that there are folks who sell (and view) books as products only, and those who view books as so much more than mere products. You and I are obviously on the same side of the fence.

My husband found a first edition of "On the Road" a half-hour into a very small sale a few years ago. Many other dealers were there, all around us. Oh, books. How wonderful they are...

Ben, and quillhill, thanks for chiming in. That St. Louis sale reminds me of the tales I've heard for years about the huge annual sale in Ithaca - half a million books, a week long, I believe? I have yet to attend it myself. At sales, I love to look for unassuming little books with no, or minimal, lettering on the spines. I always find some wheat amidst the chaff.
At a huge book sale in New Hampshire two years ago, my husband found a first edition of 84 Charing Cross Road over two hours into the sale. Good man!

This sale welcomes the dealers with open arms because they write big checks and every penny goes to fund college scholarships. A truly worthy cause! We are going back this April...
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