Book Arbitrage

Joan Didion once wrote, "the hippies scorn money -- they call it bread." Rob Horning explains how best to reap the benefits of the secondhand bookstore's cash-or-credit system.

On a shopping-friendly holiday like Memorial Day or Labor Day, when thrift stores were open and likely to have sales, we would travel to an unfamiliar city, with a few empty milk crates in the car and full day to waste. Armed with a page torn out of a pay-phone phone book (this was back when there still were pay phones, with phone books in the booths in bolted-down binders) and a map from the automobile club, we would devise our plan of attack and chart out a route for hitting as many thrift stores as we could as quickly as we could: the big, national names -- St. Vincent de Paul, Goodwill, Deseret Industries, Salvation Army, Savers, Value Village -- as well as the small-time charities for local hospitals and food banks and woman's shelters and the like. Sometimes there would be library-sponsored book sales mixed in. We didn't discriminate. For our purposes, sheer volume was of the essence.

Though we'd give over entire days to spending our money at these charity stores, we didn't regard ourselves as philanthropists. We saw ourselves more as a clever criminal gang or, if we were less inclined to romanticize ourselves, as savvy arbitrageurs, seizing upon a loophole we uncovered and exploiting it to the farthest degree we could manage. Our goal was straightforward: Get a trove of books to resell at the independent bookstores in the college town where we lived, amassing store credit and magically transmuting such dreck as Barbara Kingsolver and Tony Hillerman novels into the gold we wanted, the abstruse social-theory texts that looked so imposing and impressive on a budding graduate student's bookshelf.

So in our blitzkrieg assault on a town's thrift stores, we didn't bother with the clothes, shoes, or bric-a-brac. We were interested in books, and only books. Working methodically, shelf by shelf through whatever chockablock collection of battered, secondhand bookcases the store had marshaled to house its collection, we would pull out any title that appeared to have value. We coveted trade-size paperbacks the most; we'd buy any of those, particularly since they were usually priced the same as the pocket-size ones and were generally contemporary enough to make for easy resale. Hardcovers were less attractive because they were inexplicably more expensive and impossible to resell unless they were from some collectible niche or about an unusual subject.

It doesn't take long to train your eye to spot worthy spines -- after a few book-scouting trips, you would start to hone in on certain shapes, certain fonts, seemingly arbitrary characteristics that experience had taught us made a book sellable. Often you didn't need to know the first thing about the title or the author to know that it could be resold.

But the bottom line was typically price. If a thrift store was having a book sale -- 10 paperbacks for a dollar, maybe -- we'd lower our standards accordingly. We would take a chance on some books that might not sell, that might linger in our crates for a while and frustrate and embarrass us. These were books that you wouldn't want people thinking you actually owned sincerely -- Tom Clancy paperbacks, diet books, books from the Left Behind series, that sort of thing. You didn't want people thinking you actually liked this sort of book.

Sometimes, though we would find a book we intended to keep for ourselves; this was the most triumphant disintermediating achievement of all. This is how I got my copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, at Speedway Outlet in Tucson, Arizona, and an Everyman edition of Samuel Richardson's Pamela Volume II at a Savers in Flagstaff.

On these missions, as the day would wear on, our crates would quickly fill up. We took great care to keep our scores separate -- we were competing with each other as well as with the bookstores we intended to eventually sell them to. When the crates were close to overflowing and the sun was about to set, we would head home and begin strategizing for the second half of our book-arbitrage scheme.

You wouldn't think that taking a box of used books to an independent bookstore would be fraught with anxiety. For most people -- for ordinary people -- this is a once-a-year activity at most, a satisfying moment perhaps of a successful purging, a species of what New York Times Magazine columnist Rob Walker has called unconsumption. But for us, it was a tactical battle with a wily opponent, the bookstores' purchasing agent, who was, we imagined, trained to try to thwart renegade book arbitrageurs like ourselves by stonewalling, stalling, or low-balling us on our hard-earned haul.

So we made very precise attack plans, organized the books in our crates carefully to foster the illusion that the stuff throughout was consistently sellable. It was necessary that the sequence of books the buyer would see be well-orchestrated, telling a particular tale about our own curatorial tastes, that they could be trusted implicitly. We wanted to lull the buyer into a comfort zone, build her confidence in our crates, so that she might give the benefit of the doubt to an unfamiliar title, or take a few books merely out of having fallen into a rhythm of pulling out keepers. Nothing was more humiliating than when a buyer passed on what you brought and you had to carry a nearly full crate out of the store. Bearing this burden of shame signaled an open, outright rejection that we felt at a surprisingly personal level. Those crates embodied the deliberate exercise of our judgment, and when they failed to convince, we could only wonder whether we had lost our touch.

Some stores' buyers were tougher than others, and this led to the establishment of an indie-bookstore hierarchy in our minds. The tougher the buyers were, the scarcer the store credit would be and the more likely it was the store would have special, expensive treasures we yearned for. (Could we have simply bought these books? Well, we were earning a graduate student stipend, which hovers somewhere around minimum wage.) We'd start with the more selective stores, and as our crate dwindled, we'd bring the dregs into Bookman's, a statewide chain with low standards but which offered notoriously low amounts of credit. And Bookman's selection was sizeable, but stocked mainly with what we knew were the dregs.

While the bookstores would sometimes quote a cash figure for the books they wanted to buy from us, they always offered far more in store credit. Invariably, we took the credit. We had a lofty notion that we were in this for the knowledge -- for more books -- not for money. In our rejection of cash, we would even semi-self-deprecatingly quote a line that Joan Didion quoted in Slouching Towards Bethlehem: "the hippies scorn money -- they call it bread".

The problem with cash is that it immediately shifted the terms of the game, and how who was winning and who was losing was assessed. When it was a matter of who ended up with the better books, we believed we were the clear victors. I took away all three volumes of Kolakowski's Main Currents of Marxism for a hodgepodge of forgettable contemporary fiction that I salvaged from a Mormon thrift store: Me 1, Book Haven 0. But looked at from a more bottom-line oriented perspective, it was not so flattering. The bookstores was getting to mark up by at least 100 percent the books we brought them, after hours and hours of unpaid labor, and their employees got to spend their days reading books and judging the likes of us while we were out there doing the grunt work. Our uncompensated labor helped kept their store going, and all we got out of it were some esoteric scraps. And when the culture of independent bookstores were celebrated, none of that glory redounded to us. We had already pitted ourselves against them in our hearts, and we envied them too.

Because book arbitrage had become a demented hobby for us, we didn't mind being paid in books -- that translated into prestige with the right sort of audience. And we enjoyed the work for its own sake, and for the comforting illusions about ourselves we drew from it. But eventually, when we were no longer in the cloistered economy of graduate school and had to make our way in the real world, we discovered that unread books on the shelf don't offer much sustenance and no one is nearly as impressed with our collections as we were with ourselves. Then the collections slowly get dismantled and sold, for real, and all the chimerical gains from our arbitrage are wiped out for good.

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