It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities
I’ve made thousands of house calls over the years. Some have been memorably good. Some unforgettably bad. But there’s almost always something good—even in the worst. The ones where I’ve gone away empty handed were often learning experiences. Those where the books turned out to be terrible? I could usually find “something” good. A book or a handful of books that should be taken and rescued.
A Best of Calls: Book Rescue Underground
We’ve had a happy relationship with the folks at the Arlington Virginia Public Library for 6 or 7 years now. They have a massive library sale twice a year in their parking garage. When it is done, we come down and clear out what hasn’t sold.
We have similar relationships with many libraries, schools, places or worship, and other organizations that have annual or semi-annual charity book sales. Some of these sales are enormous.
This has been one of many symbiotic relationships. Prior to us getting involved, many organizations had to call in pulpers to clear out the remains. It isn’t practical to pack and save the books for future. First, these didn’t sell this sale. Second, they’ll get so many fresh donations for the next sale there just is no space or people power to manage such bulk.
For us, picking up the remains of Arlington Library’s 4-day sale has been a welcome influx of fresh stock at a time when books coming in slows due to weather and holiday distractions.
Now this particular event is held in an UNDERGROUND parking garage. The first years we didn’t have as many vans as we do now.
We would send our 24-foot box truck and a van with low enough clearance to get down. We’d then shuttle the books up to street level and unload the van into the truck and then…back down to get another load. It was VERY labor intensive!
Now we send 3 vans with low enough clearance so as not to knock off any sprinkler heads on the low ceilings and trigger…disaster.
Sometimes I can go along. It is actually a fun change of pace and quite a physical workout. It is a kind of mind cleansing day. So different from the usual grind of studying difficult and problematic books and other oddments that get pushed to me because no one else here is quite sure what to do with them. And then there are the administrative duties that fall on me. So often it seems everyone wants a little piece of me by phone, email, text or in person. When I’m working there underground it is pure “booking.” Packing on my knees, lifting boxes into the van, sharpshooting and putting aside the occasional title I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle. I can get into a kind of Zen-like trance and work “automatically.” A mini mental vacation.
So on Tuesday, October 24th, I got in early to get a head start only to find the right size vans were not at the warehouse?!
One had been sent to the Gaithersburg store on Monday. (We keep a van or a truck at each of the three brick and mortars to fill with the buys that come in daily. When one is full, we get called at the warehouse and go and swap the full vehicle out with an empty one.) Then another was at the Frederick store instead of the box truck which usually spends its weekends there absorbing the books (and LPs, movies, CDs etc…) that customers bring in to sell us every day.
Ok…the day was NOT off to a good early start after all.
I came up with a plan on the spot. Empty half of the big truck here, and take it back to the Frederick store. Empty the van that is there into it and head down solo to Virginia.
Take the too tall van down to Gaithersburg, and empty the van there into it. Continue on down to Virginia from there.
We also needed to fill the vans to the brim with empty boxes to pack the books we were picking up.
It was a bit of a “fire drill,” but eventually all three vans were on the road south.
Upon arrival at the large gracious looking library building, we each turned onto the ramp down into the relative darkness under the building. When we got to the gate, I slowed to a crawl. We’ve always fit under the lights and sprinkler fixtures before, but it is just human nature to worry it won’t work this time.
The library closes off a large section of the parking level with portable, metal fences. We swung the “gate” open and backed the vans in. Although this is a tough pickup in some ways, the fact that we can pull the vans next to the books is very helpful. There are two walls of fixed shelves and a lot of very heavy-duty, BIG, wooden trolleys. There are also a number a smaller metal rolling carts.
Then we began packing and loading the vans. Six guys. Three big vans. LOTS of empty boxes. When a cart was emptied, we would push it away and roll the next full one to the rear or side door of a van and pack right into boxes on the van. This saves moving and lifting full boxes. In a couple hours, all three vans were full to the ceiling. A solid mass of books. 175-200 boxes. 30-70 books per box. Say, maybe 5000 books per van—from small, lightweight, mass market paperbacks to weighty, coffee table art and photo books.
Day 1—Three vans. The next day, we sent two vans down. The third day, I went down with one helper to mop up what was left. It was mostly foreign language books that are problematic for us. Most of the ISBNs don’t work for online sales. The stores have a pretty limited audience for books in French, German, Chinese, Korean, Cyrillic, Sanskrit…
But we took them all.
We will figure something out.
Three days and 30,000 books “rescued.” We will pay the library something per box. The library won’t have to go the painful process of turning the leftovers over to pulpers. We provide a service and pay some money as well.
What will happen to all these books? We will sort them for online sales at WonderBook.com. Others will go to the stores. The too common, former bestseller hardcovers for which there are no other options will go to our BooksByTheFoot.com service. These are offered to interior designers and propmasters. Some you will see in movies, TV shows, commercials. Some you might see in store window displays or in hotel lobbies or restaurants to add warmth and ambience. Some will go to new homes that need their shelves filled in a hurry. Most importantly, they will continue being a “book.” Some we sell in bulk overseas—sending container loads of paperbacks to Asia, Africa, Europe…usually for only pennies apiece. But in that kind of volume, it offsets the labor and handling costs. And the books remain “books.” Excess children’s books will be offered “By the Box.” Others we give away to local schools and organizations that can get them into classrooms or into the hands of kids who might not have a book to take home otherwise. This week we are giving 1500 books to our great Frederick theatre—the Weinberg Center. Each kid that attends the children’s shows there this week will be able to take home a book after the performance.
…Planting seeds…like Johnny Appleseed…
Not much will go the “farm”—the pulp mill. The library is very picky about what they put out for the sale. We won’t find many damaged or obsolete books.
Winners: The library makes a LOT of revenue over 4 days to help support their programs. Our employees will have work and make a paycheck every two weeks. Readers and collectors, both locally and globally, will enjoy these books.
And the “book” wins. 30,000 books will have another chance.
OH! I almost forgot. “Old” books don’t sell well at these sales. Most old books are just…old books. But many look great! The library folks agreed to put aside old stuff for me. They pointed out 45 boxes of the stuff. Not likely I’ll find any treasures, but this kind of stuff is fun and some “treasures” aren’t worth lots of money. These vintage leather and cloth bindings will have another life.
[image of old book pallet] F
Was this the Best of Calls for all time? No. But it was so pleasant. The librarians were so grateful. So, we will put it into the “Best of…” category.
The Worst of Calls
On the very last day of September 2017, an email dropped in on my phone. I made the serious mistake of opening it in the evening while relaxing from a long hard day. I compounded that mistake by RESPONDING on the tiny text of the phone rather than waiting until I got to my laptop the next morning and could seriously compose a response.
The subject line in the email addressed to me read: “NAIVE”. Below that was this text (name and some irrelevancies removed):
Words definitely matter. It’s how we communicate.
I sincerely hope that you take the time to read this in its entirety.
Call me naive, but when I saw your ad stating in large bold font type WE BUY/SELL ALL BOOKS, I believed it to be true. Knowing I’d be moving within the next few months, I sorted through my “library.”
I called the number in your advertisement August 3rd.
Not hearing from you, I sent you an email on August 4th.
On August 6th I received a call from [a book scout who does many, many calls in the DC Region for us]. I told him I had books, magazines, VHS tapes, DVDs, Video Games, CDs, totaling over 1000. He asked me what type (mentioning something that left me with the impression he didn’t want to make a long drive for nothing)…
I told him I’d send him a list and he obliged by giving me his email address.
Attached is a copy of the list I sent to….
A day or so later I accessed a phoned message from [….] saying he’d gone over the list and didn’t really see enough to warrant a visit from him to determine what the store might consider…and suggesting I stop by one of your locations to learn whether any transaction might be possible.
After listening to his message… truthfully, I just sat here stunned, too angry and disgusted to respond.
Since then, each time I’ve seen your advertisement, the anger and disgust returns.
If YOU have any interest in items contained on the attached list, I would be more than happy to transfer ALL to you at minimal cost [if you pick them up] (minus less than a dozen children’s books included in a donation to Purple Heart Veterans.).
Words matter. Truth in advertising matters.
I move October 10th.
Hope to hear from you.
P.S. If I do not hear from you, after the move I will contact The Washington Post (source in which I found and continue to find your advertisement) and see if anyone there is interested in my/your story.
Hmmm…these are always “fun.” I take insults and being called a liar seriously. I’ve learned from many hard knocks that complaints can be justified. Many of our policies have been changed for the better by listening to customers and saying, “Hey, they are right.”
I opened the attachment she had sent. The books were dreadful. There were about 600 books. Mostly paperback. A lot of common kids series. The list continued with 160 VHS tapes. Our current Washington Post ad makes it clear we no longer accept VHS tapes. Some CDs followed. CDs are becoming more and more difficult to sell at any price and many have to be destroyed, as no one will take them at any price. Finally, there were a number of common magazines listed. All were magazines we would send right to recycling.
So, there were close to 1000 “items.” 1000 is the threshold number of items where we’d consider a house call. “Consider”
Still, I replied diplomatically:
What is your address?
Approximately how many boxes do you have?
I’ll see if we can’t send someone.
We get so many requests for house calls. We can’t possibly do them all.
Also, many collections’ value doesn’t offset the expenses in sending out a van with 1-2 men.
We DO make a cash offer on ANY books—brought to our stores—every day—10-6 pm.
She replied she had about 16 boxes and lived in Anne Arundel County—about 1.5 hours away. She included a copy of our Washington Post ad and continued to insist that it states “WE BUY ALL BOOKS.”
I looked closely. The ad she’d sent was a year old. We’d tweaked it a bit since then. But it has always stated:
WE BUY/SELL ALL BOOKS
DVDs, CDs more Every Day. Cash Paid at our stores
House calls possible for large collections…
The ad you forwarded was from Fall 2016.
But you’re right the ad states:
“We Buy All Books …Every Day . Cash paid at store”
The next line states:
“House calls possible for large collections of 1000+ items”
The “POSSIBLE” is a clear disclaimer that some house calls are NOT possible even if they have 1000+ items. If a collection is distant, contains not enough desirable material to offset expenses…we are forced to pass on it.
Looking at your list a large portion has little or no value—VHS, magazines, kids softcovers, very common books…
So, your collection is over 1 hour and 20 minutes from us. And the bulk of it are common items that we end up recycling as pulp (all the pages listed of Magazines for instance). It costs us $90 per ton to dispose of VHS and other bad plastic material. It costs us about $100 per hour to send two men and a van to house calls….
But, being a good merchant and having engaged this person directly, I felt some sense of obligation. I don’t know why. Maybe I had some sense of guilt instilled in me when I was a child. Guilt even for things I haven’t done. Guilt for misunderstandings in which I wasn’t complicit.
Foolishly, I made a noble offer:
That said—we will send someone this week to pickup the collection. Because of the costs and distance I can only make a token offer of $20. If you can find someone to bring them to our Frederick warehouse I will pay $150. Maybe some neighbor could use the money? Or the money could be donated.
We have help here who will do all the unloading in minutes.
She replied she didn’t have time to arrange anything and that I should go ahead and set up the pickup.
The next day an email dropped from her. In the subject line: “AND”
The text in the body read only:
Gee whiz…snark! And I’m going out of my way to help.
I replied I could come that Saturday.
I worked all Saturday morning—sorting some great books that had been put on carts for my attention. At 2:30PM, I hopped in the van and headed east from Frederick County, MD to Anne Arundel County. It was a trip from the far west side of Washington DC and its beltway to the far east side.
It was a pleasant day. I figured I was doing a “good deed.” The trip might be fun. And I can ALWAYS find “something” in any collection to make the experience, if not the expense, worth the work.
It was dreary trip. Miles down roads like the Ritchie Highway with its strip malls and stoplights and stoplights…
Mapquest got me there in an hour and a half. But there was no house with the street number she’d given me in the row after row of humble townhouses. I called and was given a new number. Awww, there’d been a typo in the email she had sent. Imagine if I had a TYPO.
I pulled the big van up to the walkway leading to the front door. I knocked on the door and a pleasant woman opened it. Then it hit. A wave of heavy, acrid, stale, cigarette smoke. The kind that has permeated a residence for many years.
One of my first employees was a former army nurse, Smitty, she was a tough cookie with a heart of gold. And a heavy chain smoker. She was also a good book collector: Arkham House, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie… When she passed, her executor called saying Smitty wanted us to have her books. When we went to pick them up, I noticed all the walls were yellowed—except where pictures or a clock had hung. In those protected spots, the wall was still white. White rectangles and squares and circles. All the spines of her books were yellowed as well. Fortunately, all were wrapped in clear, mylar book protectors. We removed the protectors, and the books were fine—after we aired them out in a garage for a year or two.
However, unlike Smitty’s collection, the books in this new collection had no protectors, and they would be smoky. There were only 14-16 very small, wine boxes of books. 4-5 bundles of yellowed VHS tapes. Not nearly the 600 books and 160 VHS on the list.
“Well, less to throw out…”
The books…there couldn’t be 600 in there. I should just leave.
But I was there. Plus she might turn me into the Washington Post authorities.
It took just a few minutes to carry the boxes out. She even helped.
I pulled a 20 from my wallet. I didn’t want to stay long enough to write a check.
The drive back was just as unpleasant traffic wise. It was MUCH more so as the acrid, stale smell wafted from the rear of the van to the cab.
Back at the warehouse, I opened the rear door and unpacked some of the books to look at my haul.
I sent the warehouse manager an email. “DO NOT send the books in the van I took this weekend to sorting. We will likely just pulp them all.”
When I got in Monday, I looked at again. Dreadful. Should I count them out of spite?
“Stick them in a trailer.”
Maybe in a year or two, the smell will dissipate. I had a lot invested in this junk…
I’m guessing I could gross $40-50 from this lot in a year or two. To get that, I would have to pay for sorting and cataloging online and shelving and pulling the order and packing. So far I’ve got three hours driving and about $25 in fuel invested. Oh, that and about 40 minutes in email composition, reading etc…
Then I unpacked some and staged them on a cart.
[image of yellowed and yucky books] J
From bad to worse to awful.
Nah…they will still smell and be yellowed and common and…
“Not a thing. Not one book worth saving.”
Any one of them would taint any other book they came in contact with.
I looked into a mirror. Is there a big S on my forehead? Standing for “Sucker.”
At least a valuable lesson was learned…well, relearned…hope I don’t forget it!
Actually several “learning moments.”
And for the first time ever—as far as I can recall—not ONE redeeming item in the 1000 +/- pieces of her “library.”
In the future—”Just Say No!” Politely.
I KNEW something good would come of this!
Was this the worst call of all time? I can’t think of any worse right now. There was the time a seller pulled a big old Bowie knife on me and started waving it around… “You don’t know books! He don’t know books!”
As I recall he wasn’t happy with my opinion that his “rare books” were not as uncommon as he had thought.
There wasn’t any bloodshed. There weren’t any books either. I backed out of that hillbilly hovel empty handed.
But that’s a tale for another time.