Book Mining: The Evolution of Used Book Stores

Hands gloved against paper cuts and the cold, an employee of Wonder Book flipped quickly through our six bags of paperbacks and hardbacks to assess the value of the unwanted bounty we had brought to his Frederick, Maryland, storefront. He spent perhaps twenty seconds per bag, deftly pushing aside the good books at the top to see the makeweights at the bottom of each bag, before mentally tallying up our reward: $20 in store credit, mostly due to an unopened DVD. Deal.

Wonder Book

I was reminded of this employee’s efficient calculation of words’ worth by Bob Thompson’s article in the Washington Post (“Twice-Sold Tales,” Monday, December 29, 2008) about his employer’s own experience sorting books. Profiling Wonder Books and its owner, Chuck Roberts, Thompson finds Roberts in a 54,000-square-foot warehouse, filled with books:

Dressed in a sweat shirt, sweat pants and funky shoes, he’ll stand for hours at a sorting table in the middle of the warehouse. That’s where he and a longtime employee, Ernest Barrack, determine the fate of the books in the “raw boxes” that come in every day.

“It’s like book mining. You never know what you’re going to get,” Roberts says.

The increasing sophistication of local used book stores like Wonder Book and the constantly moving McKay’s has, I fear, begun to leave me feeling less like a book miner than a book recycler. I don’t mind trading six bags of books and leaving with one in return—books deserve to be read and returned to the world—but anymore, that $20 store credit won’t buy you five tattered paperbacks.

Once upon a pre-Internet time, entering a used book store meant the possibility of finding a pulp science fiction novel for a quarter or a stash of Starlog magazines, the whole pile for a fin. Now, everything is priced according to complicated algorithms that chart the book’s price volatility across three continents for the last four months. As a kid, I could grab handfuls of books and get them all, sampling genres and authors with abandon; last time I was at Wonder Book, a month ago, I heard a mother tell her son, “You can only have one book.”

The New York Times also has an article recently (David Streitfeld, “Bargain Hunting for Books, and Feeling Sheepish About It,” Saturday, December 27, 2008) about the pressures all book sellers are facing, from publishers to people peddling books out of their closets. I respect that used book stores need to turn a profit, and I’m certainly guilty (if that’s the right word) of hunting down book bargains on the Internet, but I can’t help wishing that there were more wonder when I entered Wonder Book.