Well, I guess I am in the Book Business


I sell books.  I never really intended to sell books, but I have done well enough to make it a good sideline.

I get the books all sorts of ways, but mostly people either leave them out in the alley (I live in a very high density neighborhood in Chicago), bring them to the recycling center, or they call me and offer them to me.

It started  almost 20 years ago.  I had returned from my Peace Corps service in Malawi , &  corresponded with another Chicagoan who  became a teacher in Malawi.  He ended up  modernizing the science curriculum for the country, and realized that many (if not most) teachers  did not have a book for the subject they were teaching.   Can you imagine?  (as a bitter aside—we give millions of dollars in foreign aid…much for military aid—but the very thing that would stem  mass migration, environmental degradation, support peace and human dignity—we don’t fund as a government policy).

He gave a bunch of people who were willing to send books to teachers lists of their subjects.  We’d send them M-bag, & to Malawi, from Chicago, it was $1.29 a pound.  Cheap. The trouble was that  the containers would sit somewhere until they  were full, & THEN be shipped.  Usually land in Capetown, but sometimes in Beira (Mozambique) or Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) & THEN be trucked overland to  Blantyre, & THEN send to the rural post office of the town where the school was. This would take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years.

Miraculously, most boxes got delivered.  I also send many boxes to the Peace Corps office in Lilongwe, so volunteers could take them to their sites and distribute them.

I’d get letters of thanks every now & then.

Then…the USPS went out of the mail business.  Seems the  direct mail industry doesn’t care if they  damage  a certain  per centage of what they send out, &  they  were subsidizing the shipping of what we considered direct humanitarian aid.  See, the USPS was paying to store the containers until they were full.  It wasn’t worth it.

For about 10 years, I was spending about $1000 a year to send  books.  I had to find boxes that fit in the M-bags & pack them very carefully..then write the school & tell then  that in anywhere from 6 months to 2 years, they should look for the books.

When the  USPS stopped taking books ( I kid you not:  there are signs at many  Post Offices that say if a package weighs more than  8 oz. to take it to Fed-Ex), I sent   about a dozen boxes  via UPS, to a  school district in Oregon that  was sending a container.

For about a year, I  couldn’t send books.  However….one night I was walking a client’s dogs, and there  was a dumpster parked  on their block. Someone was rehabbing a house.  I peeked into the dumpster…and there were hundreds of books!  Good thing we were  having a dry spell, as it took me  3 nights to pull out as many books as I could grab.  I was able to sell about half of what I got to local book dealers for about $300.  No joke.

Because I network with other do-gooders, I found a local organization that sent a container at least once a year to Tanzania. They were interested in  teachers editions math, elementary school science, nature, public health, non-fiction such as business books and histories, and classic fiction. So, for several years, I  gave them hundreds of books.  Zambian Children’s Fund in the Tempe/Tucson AZ area, also sends the same types of books.  Coprodeli USA sends books to Peru, While they prefer Spanish, they will also take elementary  science, reference,  and nonfiction.  I tried working with Bookfriends, but they are mostly interested in textbooks.  I put them in touch with others who try to recycle  vast quantities of school books.

Right after the Lehman  Brothers collapse & the beginning of the current economic downturn, I was walking my own dogs in an alley, & came upon  a bunch of boxes piled up.  I opened a couple, & they were new books.  I recognized the publishers, so I returned with my car, got them all….& ended up selling  most of them for $400.

Now…here’s the deal.  We are not talking romances, trade paperbacks, thrillers or westerns.  My local Halfprice Books bill barely pay 5c each for those.  You have to know which publishers have in demand titles and small press runs.  As it happens, a fellow Whippet fancier is also a bookstore owner (& fellow dumpster diver), and she can look up titles, numbers available, and prices on both Half.com and Advanced Book Exchange. I always thought first editions were valuable.  Not so—unless they have a dust jacket…& later editions may be more valuable if they’re signed by the author.  Some art books with color illustrations are very valuable, and you can always sell “The Catcher in the Rye,”   or “On the Road,” no matter  what edition it is.  Everyone  wants those books all the time.

Library copies and books with broken bindings or highlighted are usually not worth anything. Textbooks over 5 years old are generally  not worth much, so I send those overseas if they are not economics or college physics .  Medical & nursing texts I do send.

To me, it doesn’t matter what the buyers sell them for. They generally pay 10% of face value. Why doesn’t what they pay matter to me if they sell it for 100 times more?  Present value of future cash flow. They are paying me today, &  they may not sell the book for a year.  They have overhead.  I don’t.  & this is why many people can’t sell books. They have an inflated view of what their books are worth.  You want to list on Half.com or Advanced Book Exchange?  & sit on your books, & have to deal with collection (Paypal) & shipping? go right  ahead.  It might be worth it to you if you live in a less densely populated city.  For me, this works.

Could I make a living at it?  Ah….the world has changed since the advent of the internet, Amazon.com , & the KindleBetterWorldBooks.com , which claims to be a nonprofit—gets the very same books you & I , and all the small bookstores are attempting to sell…DONATED.  Yep. They get them free. Sure, they send them to schools all over, but we have no idea what their principals—the people who run the ‘nonprofit’—are making.  Between them, Amazon, & Borders, they are all going to put independent book dealers out of business.  These are microbusinesses:  they gross under $500,000 a year. Their overhead is huge.  Many of the dealers don’t have health insurance.  They just love books.  At one time, they were making money.  No longer.

So…that’s how it happened.  I also sell other stuff that there is an aftermarket for .  Same deal.  People think I am crazy, or strange, but so what?  I  have managed to keep paying my mortgage—haven’t lost the house—so I must be doing something right.

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