Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Addiction and distraction

For a week and a half after I returned from vacation, I have held out. I am only allowed to read books, not sell them. I have even limited forays to my best secret source to twice a week. But the end of last week found me in a diner two and a half hours from my home, having my first coffee at two in the afternoon with having ice cream for breakfast while two boxes of newly acquired, out-of-print and antique books sit in my trunk. I had bought them in the saddest mall in America, in old mining country. 

The hardest thing for me to do at the moment besides the surge of health care,  unemployment and high school paperwork—and even the smallest bit of paperwork is like pulling the blinds down over my brain—is NOT to revert back to obsessively selling books.

Bookdealing is how I have kept my head above water the past few years as my teacher salary dropped. It has also given me the means to spend the next few months training as an indexer rather than being broke. However, if at present, I spend time on the books, then I won’t spend time on the indexing courses. I won’t spend time taking care of the house, now that I am home. I won’t spend time even creating my own business and its website.

I know myself. I could easily spend day and night working on book scouting, listing and selling. That has been my life the past few years. I would go to my "real job" as a school media specialist, come home, and work on listings. I was always working except when I would take off a few weeks in the summer It wasn’t just the money, because the money isn’t THAT good (if it were, that’s all I would do). As my work in education became less and less satisfying, less survivable, bookselling became my key source of independence and self-respect.

The fear of the unknown I face now makes it tempting to do what I already know and neglect everything else. Because, who knows if I will be successful or not as an indexer, with all of its marketing requirements? Who knows if anything will pay decently within the realm of my degree in library / information science, given the instability in the publishing world?  

To prevent myself from taking refuge in the bookselling obsession, I keep the online store “closed” for most of July. I make a pact with myself not to even look at any books, even though I now have a phantom-like backlog looming over me from inside two cabinets, under the piano and filling the library cart my mother picked out of her synagogue's bulk trash when they renovated. For these ten days I diligently take care of health matters, paperwork, cleaning house, etc. I celebrate my 50th. 

Two days later, like an addict, I am back to my old tricks: I am at a book sale. Not only that, but it's not even, as they say in Dutch, vlak bei (nearby). It wasn’t that I feel a need to work on the books. Wading successfully through other matters made me realize how important it was to keep the books on the back burner for now. I am at this sale more out of curiosity than out of need.

This is the thing: At some point I will be returning to the books, and in fact, expanding the business. One of my sources is book sales. There aren’t many big ones in the summer locally; the two July ones occurred (both on the same day) while I was in Puerto Rico. All week, in between thinking about my birthday, I was quite aware that two large, annual sales were going to be held, respectively, the day after and two days after that.

I haven’t been to either sale, and neither has my father--for here dubbed DAD as in The Daddy of All Dealers. Although driving distance, they aren’t that close by, but if I’m going to be expanding my biz eventually I want to know if they are any good. I don’t want to wait another year to find out. One of them is almost four hours away, and I’m definitely not up to going. The one the day after that is 2.5 hours away.

I almost don’t go, but at 6:30 a.m. I find myself lying awake in bed thinking: Might as well. It’s so last minute that I don’t even have coffee and breakfast: If I were doing this properly, I would have left the house at 6 a.m. so that I can be close to the head of the line well before the sale opens. Just in case it’s a good one.

So I’m running late. But my expectations are low. It’s not near a university town, or run by WASP-y ladies. But the number of books they advertise they will have gets me going, even if now I am going to arrive after it opens.

Part of it is, admittedly, my need to escape again, even for the day. I have spent the last week doing paperwork, catching up on doctor appointments and organizing house. My brain has shut down, offended at having been forced to do so many mundane-yet-oh-so-overwhelming tasks. But I can do book scouting in my sleep, and driving in rural areas relaxes me. 

What I don’t realize until I get to one very large town, is that I had seen that area a few years ago while my daughter was in sleepaway camp. At that time, I spent several days going as far as I could go into the rust belt towns with their hopeful antique centers. It was new country to me and it was true, the antiques were cheaper. Through another, more southerly route, I had eventually passed through this area, these towns with their identical main streets of attached, soiled white aluminum siding homes with black-railed front porches, boarded-up shopfronts punctuated by the occasional diner, bar, auto mechanic or antique shop. It was a weekday, and few people were in sight: Was this because just like in that 1980s Tom Cruise football star movie, all the young people wanted to leave - and had left? Were the streets empty because it was only aged parents left inside them? The houses are nothing to look at, but they aren’t abandoned, and the rows of them, and rows behind them, and rows behind those, indicate that once there was a reason to build them. Once these towns were somewhere you could grow up, have a social life, get a job in. Now, I don’t see much of anything resembling a business. If there is any economy—and there very well might be—it is, like mine, on the Internet in someone’s house, not in a storefront or office.

It looks even worse when I arrive at the mall. “Code of conduct” warning signs are posted on the entrances. The automated doors don’t work. Two anchor stores remain, almost all of the small ones are gone. There’s a cell phone store, a pizza place and a hot dog place.  

The only cheerful thing in there is the security guard who leads me to the empty Gap where the book sale is. I am even less cheerful when he tells me that, before the sale opened, the line snaked all the way around to where I came in. I am dismayed: These people are buying the books that I would have gotten my hands on if only I had woken up half an hour earlier. After about ten minutes inside, I realize that they are not my competition: They are there to buy books to read, not sell. At least 90 percent of the books are near new or for other reasons not of value (books on gardening, crafts, remaindered biographies, outdated editions of textbooks, etc). Even the “vintage” table is mostly cheap 1940s novels that look collectible with their dust jackets, but actually don’t sell for much. Now my librarian-ness kicks in: I am happy that so many people out here want to read. I have satisfied my curiosity. I will not be back next year. 

It’s not like when I am at a good sale: There is no reason here to move with the speed of light; I do not need to go into octopus mode. But I am here, so I spent about an hour picking out a book here and there. I’m pleased when I recognize some good finds. It isn’t worth coming back, but I’m not going to lose money on this. 

This blog could easily be devoted just to my book-dealing adventures, but I don’t want to give away my secrets. Besides, it would become like the book-dealing itself, a temptation away from the other things I have to write about, like making a livable career after after 50. But I will say something here: When you are at a mediocre or bad sale (especially after all that driving effort), it is very tempting to see value in books that have none. You so desperately want to come home with more than a couple dozen books. It’s like going on date and you don’t like the guy at all but talk yourself into seeing him a few more times. You grab that book on the artists of Provence, thinking how beautiful it is, how specific in its title, the quality of the plates. You want to buy it, but you know that it is not long out of print, and the chapters are short, not scholarly. You put it back. You think of all of the math and science books the Daddy of all Dealers has given you to sell; could it be that those 1920s geometry books have value? No. You have tried to sell similar ones before without success. Back it goes. That antique, 6-volume music reference set? That will sell, but I doubt it’s worth paying $3 per volume. I do ask, but they won’t bring down the price as a set. I put them back. 

You have to remind yourself over and over again that $3 per book is not worth a guess, because the “misses” add up to a lot of wasted dollars.  You can’t even look up the not-sures on your phone, because the battery has died. You have to be as good at guessing as you are at the high-quality book sales where there is no time or room to look up something on your phone. You wish there were more books in that room worth reselling, and you fight the urge to take more that are on the iffy side. You go through your bags, put a few iffy’s back on the tables. In the end, you come away with 40 books. That not reason to drive so far again. 

A teenage volunteer helps me cart the books to my car. On the way we pass what used to be a large store space; it is now occupied by a call center. (I think to myself; wow, a call center that isn’t overseas). I ask him about the near-dead state of the mall. “There’s one up the road, they’re better than this one but not doing so good, either, he says.

I sigh, thinking of my daughter the same age. “Where I live, when I grew up, going to the mall was what we did for fun,” I say, then wonder where my wistful tone came from. I have always disliked this aspect of where I live—that it was one of the few things to do in the 80s and it’s still true. My daughter, just last week, overdrew her bank account at our nearest mall. But at least she had something to do. Where do these rust belt kids go or do? I think my answer might be stereotyping, so I shut down that thought. A few hours from here, at the Democratic convention, various politicians are trying to answer it, too. 

I start the drive back, taking my time now. After an hour, I reach the large town I recalled from several years ago. This place is not one to forget, with its massive city hall piled upon the highest hill, its “Union Station,” a department store with a Jewish name in 50s script, its 19th century statue of someone, on a white column cut into a hill, churches of at least eight denominations, two of them Eastern Orthodox. It is a place that could not have existed without its satellite mining towns. The city was probably depressed to, but not as obvious at first glance, and it is as pretty as I remembered it from a few years ago. It is there that I finally stop for coffee at a diner, and it had been so many years since I had diner coffee that I forgot how good it was. I read articles on my phone while sipping, the last one a New Yorker one, feeling the, no pun intended, the iron-y of reading the New Yorker in this long left-behind region. 

After I get home, I look up the value of the books I have bought. Better than I thought. My reason for going—to answer that question: Is it worth going back again or not—has not been answered. Like so much else I am facing, I am not sure. 


  1. I enjoyed the three longest paragraphs most. I'm not into the bookselling biz, but I got curious about your secrets.

    1. I could spend all day writing about my (and my father's) book finding and selling adventures...but then there is the giving away one's secrets sort of thing :). There are a bunch of e-books out there that purportedly tell people how to do this, but I have yet to see any that has the specific knowledge that comes from experience.