Rates of Exchange: The Law of Conservation of Literature

"What is a hardcore book buyer of simple means to do when faced with the discovery that books have effectively consumed all available space?" David Pullar explores the book culler's dilemma that is Cash vs. Store credit.

Inner-city rents are becoming absurd and there's only so much space that you can afford on a moderate income. Gentrification is wiping out the cheap neighborhoods and the old buildings are being replaced with new monstrosities filled with shoebox apartments. So what is a hardcore book buyer of simple means to do when faced with the discovery that books have effectively consumed all available space?

At this point, a look around the one-bedroom-and-a-bit becomes troubling. Bookshelves are arranged to leave no corner unused -- with volumes at all possible angles, interlocked like jigsaw pieces. Openings behind couches and under desks are filled with piles of dust-accumulating pages. The kitchen is a repository for books that have nothing to do with cooking. Unless you count Like Water for Chocolate.

It is at this point that a trip to the secondhand bookstore becomes essential. No matter how sentimental you are about your private library, there are usually a handful of books you feel you could part with: presents from aunts and uncles and ex-girlfriends; books that appeared cool in your second year of college that now seem sophomoric. And this at least would allow you to free up the laundry basket for actual clothes.

But there remains one problem -- the blessing and the curse of the secondhand book world -- store credit. There is always that critical decision-making point when the store clerk calls you over after inspecting your rejects and says, "That will be $30 store credit or $20 cash."

Naturally, they offer a differential rate, aimed at keeping you in the store and leaving you cashless. Secondhand stores work hard to turn over their books. You may get a kick out of collecting shelves and shelves of paperbacks, but the storeowners know that their books are only worth something when people are taking them out.

Fortunately for them, I have never yet taken the money and run. What book lover could? It's simple mathematics -- $20 that would be spent on books anyway (if not today, then next week) or $30 to spend right now. On books. Lightly-worn, pre-loved books that you have not yet read. It's not uncommon to walk in with 10 books and walk out with five, depending on the rate of exchange.

Usually the offer (either credit or cash) is so derisory, that neither option seems appealing at first. Even books that have laid unread on shelves for years seem to be worth more than the stores will pay you. There's something faintly insulting about handing over 10 or 15 books, the result of years of collecting, to be given a figure with only one zero.

This kind of bookstore operates on a tight margin. Your book may fetch $10 from another customer, but then again it may not. It might sit un-chosen and unloved for months or years. Some punk kid may slip it into their satchel and sneak out. From experience, most places will give you store credit of half what the books would sell for, and cash for a third. Presumably, someone has worked out that this is the right rate to keep the doors open and the books flowing.

Something like eBay is a logical response to this scenario. No real middleman, better prices, less risk. It's become a popular technique for offloading unwanted merchandise of all kinds, even if it is time-consuming when you sell item-by-item.

Yet like a lot of new advances in capitalism, eBay doesn't appear to have replaced the traditional secondhand industry. In the case of bookstores, it's surely something to do with the atmosphere: the cramped, faintly-musty environment; the sense that you could find literally anything buried in all the disorder. There's a very romantic essence to pre-loved bookstores.

And that serendipitous discovery doesn't happen when you take the cash and walk out. You will spend the paltry sum on a taxi ride or two drinks in a bar. You won't experience the pleasure of converting useless, unwanted books into fresh new finds. You may miss out on that elusive, dog-eared novel that would have changed your life if you had stayed.

There is even an additional challenge with store credit: how to maximize the budget you've been assigned. All sorts of sums and calculations come into play. If I have $30 credit and these two books are $9 and this one is $7, can I find one that costs $5? Books are chosen and discarded. The pile in your hands shrinks and rises until eventually you have the perfect combination.

Perhaps that is the mark of the true book obsessive: someone who can't convert books into something as prosaic as legal tender. The fanatic is someone who feels a faint sense of betrayal at parting with a book, any book, and knows that that feeling can only be assuaged by walking out with more books. It sometimes feels like a physical law: the Law of Conservation of Literature.

Sadly, this attitude leaves the space problem largely unsolved. There must be something dispensable that can be sold instead. Like the bed.

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