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It's in the Book
Charles Roberts
February 16, 2018

Books are safe. Books are comfortable. Books are permanent.

A book on your bookshelf has an aura of forever to it. Doesn't it?

Well, some books are forever—or as forever as these things go. Books in the great archives in universities and governmental libraries are conserved and protected for future scholars to reference. Fabulous foundations like the Huntington or the Morgan or Evergreen House left to posterity by wealthy collectors will likely be on view for booklovers as well as scholars for the foreseeable future.

Some of these institutions have the only existing copies of rare, beautiful and important works.

See more of The Ellesmere Chaucer here.

For this we can be thankful for the successful businessmen or scions of wealthy families who worked to gather and preserve wonderful books and who wished to leave these things behind for future generations to be able to see or study.

But this story is about the far more often impermanence of book collections.

Years ago it became apparent to me that we got most of our books as a result of the 4 "Ds." Downsizing, Departure (moving), Divorce and Death. When any of those things happen it usually means the dismantling of someone's library into their smallest component:

Individual books.

But, wait! There is an even smaller component in almost every collection we acquire...

We process hundreds of thousands of books here every month. Almost all of the books that pass through here have no other option. We are the only ones willing to take them. If we don't buy or accept them they get destroyed.

For us we see it as a passion, an obligation, a duty...as well as a "business" that needs to make enough to pay salaries, taxes, utilities, rents... This business must at least break even monetarily or, like so many book enterprises over the last 20 years, the building will go dark, the employees will go onto other things and the inventory will be liquidated.

Business is hard. Managers are always trying to look forward; to try to see what is around the next corner—good or bad—to anticipate what will come next. We are also always looking back, over our shoulders to see if any problems are building up or gaining on us. They also look for new ways to generate revenue.

So far, so good. 37.5 years and counting.

How do we accurately assess all the thousands of books pouring in here each day? Lots of formulas. Lots of training. And a good amount of double checking or kicking questionable things up to someone with more experience.

This story is about a little tiny bit of a formula used on every book that often leads to fun and sometimes valuable discoveries.

Since we sell mostly online now, we have to be especially careful about what we send out. We want our customers all over the world to be satisfied that the book they receive matches the expectations they had when they read our description and accepted our price and paid their money to acquire it.

If internet customers are unhappy, they very often let us know it with complaints and bad feedback. Too much bad feedback can really hurt the bottom line.

So, if a customer receives a book that looks like what they expected and then, upon opening it, finds torn or damaged pages or anything else inside a book they don't want to see then we have failed. It is for that reason the booksellers here flip through EVERY book that passes through their hands before they describe it as accurately as possible and then put in online for all the world to see and, we hope, for someone to claim it for their own.

Just this week a university library found some hair in an old book! Yuck?

Nope. Actually, pretty cool. It was a lock of George Washington's hair. Read the article here.

But my story is about the things we find in books.

Our booksellers here are trained to remove anything and everything they find in a book that doesn't belong there.

First of all money, stamps, confidential info (personal ids etc), gift cards—anything that might have actually monetary value or might be important to return to someone goes directly to a manager in the office.

 

The rest? We try to get them to sort the stuff into what we call ephemera* bins.

 

After that we've set up the following tiers:

One is supposed to be for things that people would have spent money on—postcards, gift store bookmarks, trading cards, unused greeting cards...

Another is for photos, used cards and postcards, printed material, letters, menus...

The bottom bins is for "Miscellaneous."

With so many people here who may have different tastes and ideas of value, we don't want anyone making a personal value decision as to what to toss into recycling and what to save.

And with so many "cooks" here our triage system, our sorting doesn't work very well...

 

These are the current 3 different types of bins:

 

Doesn't look much better than random, I'm afraid. Well, the book world is paved with good intentions.

We try to have someone go through these when we can. So much of it is worthless paper—newspaper clippings, Border's book marks, magazine subscription postcards...that stuff gets recycled.

 

We are far, far behind.

 

I used to take bins home and sort through them while I'd watch a movie or something. Now, I just don't have the energy, but I still peek into the bins very often when I walk by just to see if there's anything cool laying on top.

And when we get someone to sort the bins, some of the better things do get separated to my attention.

People have always asked, "Do you find money in books?"

 

Yes...but most of it is "funny money"—obsolete foreign currency.

 

But flipping through hundreds of thousands of books we also find some greenbacks. Most often they are $2 bills. I don't know why people save those especially. Maybe they feel they're good luck?

 

Maybe that's why I save some of the ones we find.

When enough cash is turned in, we use it to buy pizza for all the 50-60 employees here.

 

The postcards and gift shop bookmarks usually go to the stores. Some of the other stuff that is cheap and salable goes out en masse as well. Usually, at a buck.

 

The photos we find in books...so, so many. Some are sad. Some are just silly. Ernest has set up his own little gallery here.

 

Occasionally, a photo will be...ooh la la!

 

Some things have no value but are eye-catching and can be evocative. Caryn, one of our main book sorters, has a little gallery going up as well.

 

We sometimes find mechanical bookmarks. Here's one we found.

 

We also find sterling silver bookmarks.

 

For some reason I thought it might be cool to collect those touristy tasseled leather bookmarks they sell in gift shops all over the world. I've never actually bought one...Now I've got several hundred. What on earth will I do with all these?!

Maybe it's time to send my "collection" to the stores for others to...collect.

 

We even find our own bookmarks. They're often a great trip down memory lane!

 

Is there ever gold in books? Well, a couple times we've had book safes come in with little treasures.

 

One old book safe had a secret compartment and Ernest found this.

It's not really my style so I haven't had occasion to wear it, but a jeweler friend advised me it is platinum and has over 1 carat of diamonds.

 

We've some pretty cool things over the years.

 

A lot of the stuff hanging in our "gallery" came out of books.

 

But most of it goes to our stores. We call it "bag and hang."

 

So books are safe places to stores things—as long as you don't forget what you put in them!

 

* Ephemera: Paper items (like posters, broadsides, tickets, cards, bookmarks) originally meant to be discarded but are now collectible.


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