The fascinating and appalling Confessions of a Used-Book Salesman, by Michael Savitz, tells what it’s like to “spend 80 hours a week trawling junk shops with a laser scanner”:

There is competition in the used book game because it is actually possible to make a living doing what I do. I see my adversaries packing their hauls into decent cars, sometimes with the help of family members. A good load of books found all of a sudden might be resalable for many hundreds of dollars. With diligence, someone working alone can make $1,000 per week; with a more insane commitment, or with the help of a wife or child, the business might yield more, especially once a sizable inventory has been built up.
If it’s possible to make a decent living selling books online, then why does it feel so shameful to do this work? I’m not the only one who feels this way; I see it in the mien of my fellow scanners as they whip out their PDAs next to the politely browsing normal customers. The sense that this is a dishonorable profession is confirmed by library book sales that tag their advertisements with “No electronic devices allowed,” though making this rule probably isn’t in the libraries’ financial interest. People scanning books sometimes get kicked out of thrift stores and retail shops as well, though this hasn’t happened to me yet.

On the one hand, to the extent these guys rescue books from the trash compactor and sell them to people who want to read them, they’re performing a valuable service. On the other, they’re incredibly annoying if you’re at the same sale; not only are they shoving you out of the way and keeping you from looking at books, they don’t even care about the books as such, just about whether they can make a buck off them. I don’t wish ill to befall them, but I’m glad they’re banned from some library sales. (Thanks for the link, Paul!)


  1. There was a used bookseller in my town who had a reputation for buying up all the choice books at library sales before casual buyers had a chance. One on hand, what an annoying man–enough people like him and library sales are destroyed for “regular” folks. But on the other, I really enjoyed his shop, which was one of those tiny, cramped, magical places stacked floor to ceiling with books. I could always find something interesting there.
    The Amazon resellers can’t give me that experience, and I’m sure their selection is slightly more bland–being decided by popularity only, apparently–but I have bought a lot of used books through Amazon (many I couldn’t have justified buying at full price). I wonder how much they contribute to the overall selection of used books available?

  2. david waugh says

    Surely this is just what any second-hand bookdealer would do, and what they have been doing for decades if not longer? The use of technology to make the job slightly easier is no big deal, or am I missing the point?

  3. We have a great used-book sale in our town that raises money for scholarships. It’s held twice a year and is so popular they charge admission on the first day. I took a dim view of the guys with scanners the day one stepped on my hand to get at the top shelf while I was looking at something on the bottom shelf. He didn’t apologize! There’s no need to be rude and horrible. Pretty much everyone hates the scanner guys.

  4. Our library actually has these people–a specific company, to be precise–come in and comb through discards before they hit the library-sale shelves. The company then splits the proceeds with the library. As a librarian who’s fighting the rapid dumbing-down of our library collection, I find it pretty creepy; a lot of what sells for the highest prices is “academic” stuff the more anti-intellectual staff members think we should no longer have, so that we can make room for MORE copies of James Patterson novels. Yet it’s also beneficial for the library, since we get a small but steady stream of income from the book sales. The company in question is a small one whose owners are very civil to library staff, so at least the tenor of our interactions is different from what goes on during the open book sales.

  5. There was a long entry on the Seattle Craigslist, that people were forwarding around a few weeks ago, complaining about the used-book trawlers who are a constant and disruptive presence at the Goodwill shop.

  6. The use of technology to make the job slightly easier is no big deal, or am I missing the point?
    Yes, you are missing the point. I take it you have never encountered these people.

  7. michael farris says

    I’ve never encountered them either. Care to give us quick rundown on what they do that’s objectionable? (besides hogging space)

  8. The Baltimore Book Thing, a free book store slash book exchange, is a wonderful place to spend a Sunday afternoon.
    The proprietor was a fixture at the JHUP annual sale, and the Book Thing received all the unsold books as donations. Most of these books never showed up on the shelves. The rumor was, the proprietor sold the donated books online to cover his operating costs.
    On one hand, the Book Thing’s financial situation has always been precarious, and I’m glad it’s continuing to operate. On the other hand, I don’t like that particular compromise.

  9. marie-lucie says

    MF, read the article and the comments above.
    I have never run into those people, and did not know about them until I read the article on Slate some time ago, but the people who have find them very objectionable, with good reason it seems.

  10. I say God bless these folks. Their behavior may be annoying for the tiny minority of people who are actually at a given book sale, but as LH points out, they are saving books and making them available to everyone, usually at extremely reasonable prices.
    For those of us who live in benighted areas with bad libraries and who don’t have the money to buy new books, these folks are heroes.

  11. marie-lucie says

    When I read the Slate article I did not think there was anything wrong with the author’s activities, but
    erhaps a minority of those people, behaving like hooligans, are giving the others a bad name.

  12. I don’t get it either. He’s obviously working very hard at a job that’s completely legal and provides a service for others. Why be ashamed about it?

  13. The reason he feels ashamed is that he’s using his scanner to discover that the book the person is selling for $5 is worth $100. And not telling that person.
    It’s like the antiques guy who buys the $10 vase *knowing* it’s Tang and worth thousands, but not telling the guy who inherited it from his great-aunt and thinks it’s garish. Or the Navajo rug that someone’s granddad bought for $3 bucks that’s now worth hundreds of thousands. Except that he only knows it because he has this little scanner.
    It’s the “getting over” on the original owner that makes him feel ashamed. He wouldn’t if he offered a reasonable price – “I know who to sell this to for $250, and you don’t, but I’ll give you $200 for it” – he wouldn’t.
    Now, should he? That’s a different question. But I think it’s related to why people feel more shame at bribing a maitre d’ for a table than a cop to get out of a ticket: they know they’re stealing someone else’s table. This guy knows he’s taking advantage of the seller.
    Again, maybe he shouldn’t feel like that. And lots of people don’t. But I think that’s why he does, and why other people don’t like these folks.
    (Especially when they later brag about it.)

  14. J. W. Brewer says

    Leaving Goodwill aside, isn’t the point here is that if it’s a library doing the sale, it’s only being taken advantage of if it can’t be bothered to figure out which of the books it has decided to deaccession might actually be worth something? How hard would it be for a library to get a staff member or interested volunteer who knows something about, you know, books, to do exactly what these people are doing and identify the more valuable titles amongst the chaff and either set them aside or price them appropriately? Or at least do what the library described above by heelbiter does. If a library did either of those things, presumably it would not be worth the while of these annoying people to rummage through the offerings looking for grossly underpriced items to flip. And the library would have netted more money.

  15. michael farris says

    What’s stopping people who run book sales from getting their own scanners and pricing accordingly? Especially those that know what’s going on?
    I would imagine that this ‘profession’ won’t last long as they’ll soon be reduced to garage sales and the like where the low volume makes finding goodies harder.

  16. You make it sound like such a novelty, Ridge. Making a big profit at someone else’s expense? Sheesh, that’s a bit much!

  17. marie-lucie says

    Some years ago my university library had a book sale. I did not bother to go, but one of my colleagues, a devout Catholic, did. The next day he showed me a book he had bought for me there as something that “might interest me”: a hardbound book published by the Vatican, with translations of the Lord’s Prayer in 250 versions, including dozens of Amerindian languages! The price: one dollar! (like most of the other books). I was delighted, but this was not the type of book that would attract large numbers of casual buyers.

  18. I have a reprint of that book. The original, published by the Vatican in 1870, is reasonably rare.

  19. Okay, having read the article now – not just the two paragraphs cited – I have to change my mind. This guy is willing to accept a dollar in profit. He’s buying in bulk, for resale. His emotions are different than my hypothetical dealer’s.
    But I think he explains himself well in the article.

  20. marie-lucie says

    MMcM, You do! then your book is the same as mine. The original would indeed be rare, but the reprint can’t be too common either, or too much in demand. First editions are nice, but I am interested in the contents.

  21. mollymooly says

    I’m surprised these guys can make a profit at library sales, as opposed to general junk/charity shops/sales.
    These days, most public libraries of any size have all their stock in some kind of electronic catalogue. In deciding what to discard, I surmise they check this to see what’s been checked out fewer than n times in the last t months. But it doesn’t seem like it would be too hard to take that output list as input to the software the scanner guys are using. Probably too hard for untrained library staff, but one methodical person could bring a business proposal to a group of libraries. Maybe even the person who sold them the cataloguing software.

  22. A first it sounds like the guy is making money, he claims $1000 a week for 80 hours of scanning, which works out to $12.50 an hour–something above minimum wage. But how long does it take to put the books online, how long to package the books for mailing, how long to drive to the post office and wait in line? And what about expenses–packing materials, storage for unsold books, and postage? This is a boring repetitive kind of job. The difference between this job and working on a factory assembly line is 1)no friendly people to talk to on the job and 2)no boss. As far as the mystical hundred dollar books, just because you see something online priced at a hundred dollars doesn’t mean it will sell. Something isn’t “worth” a certain amount until there is a buyer willing to pay that much. It looks to me like these sellers are waaaay down on the tail of the supply-demand curve.

  23. Most of the books sold at library sales are books donated to the library which the library has seen fit to not include in its collection. My parents have, at least once, donated a book, bought it at the next library sale, then donated it again.

  24. I may be getting rid of some extra books soon. I’ve never tried selling to Half Price Books, only buying, but it seems that might be the easiest way to do it quickly.

  25. Easiest way, maybe, but not best. Half Price are the kings of lowballing, at least the ATX locations.

  26. I don’t think that public libraries ever put donated books into their collection. They just sell them along with the ones that are being discarded from the collection.
    I bought a history of the Orient Express for 50 cents at the library. I thought it was so interesting I loaned it to a friend. He returned it in a plastic bag. It seems I was the last person to read it before the binding fell apart.
    You have to admire the skill of the librarian in choosing the exact optimum moment to discard the book and extract that final 50 cents’ value.

  27. You know what I have recently discovered the possibility of making some extra money selling used books.I have attended college and have worked my butt off ever since I was 16. My college didn’t do me a bit if good and my job doesn’t pay well and I have 3kid’s to support.I am not on government assistance.I understand people shouldn’t be rude but that fits for every thing you do in life.who the hell are some of you people to judge people like me for going to sells that are open to every one and making a little bit of money off of the books that are for sell to anyone who has the money to buy them.we aren’t hurting anyone and at least we’re selling books and not drugs on the all act like we are evil well you know what I work in the healthcare field and there are big corporations that prey on sick and elderly people.they suck people dry of every center they can because they know it’s either pay outlandish rates today have your basic medical needs taken care of or lay there and become sick and-or in horrible pain.point of that being there are worse ways people are making money.

  28. I understand people shouldn’t be rude

    Well, good. Don’t be rude and people won’t have a problem with you. I’m sorry you can’t support your family by working in the healthcare field, but that shows you how messed up our economy is; I’m glad you can earn some necessary bucks this way.

  29. In my area, the problem with book scanners is that the proceeds are frequently used to fund illegal drug activity. If you keep your sales under a certain amount a month you don’t have to claim it as taxable income….which means people can still claim benefits while getting this Amazon money. They kick white people out for scanning in the Hillsboro goodwill outlet…but leave anyone else alone. I’ve gone there faithfully for many years, I know what I’m talking about.

  30. What’s annoying about these people is they are parasites. They are taking books from people that would have gotten a great deal on something they actually care about, and these middlemen turn around and flip the books and make you pay much much more. YOU PAY MORE FOR WHAT YOU WANT because these people jump in front of you and buy something for the price you could have bought it for yourself, and they just raise the price on those items and make you pay as much as possible. They don’t care what it is, its just a stuff to sell to make a profit. We used to have a really aggressive book buyer that was always the first person in line at every charity fundraiser book sale in Minneapolis. HE aways was at every sale, first in line, sweating and nervous, and he had a blanket over his shoulders. When they opened up the sales, this guy would RUN to the art table and start dumping EVERYTHING into boxes and quickly pile the boxes up and throw his blanket over them all. He usually was on his second or third box before the polite customers walked up to the table. Nobody else had a chance at any of the great art books (including broke artists like me) because he took literally everything. Later, he would sit down and go over them all at his leisure. He generally would end up with a full pallet of books. Anything good, he kept and we all would have to go to his stupid store and pay top dollar for the same exact books we could have gotten ourselves, much cheaper, if this guy wasn’t there. Like I said, parasites.

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