Friday, December 21

The problem with (most) used bookstores

One piece of reducing our waste is to use things more than once after they are produced. This is an ancient tradition, but one that was branded as “old-fashioned” during the rise of the consumer/convenience culture of the 1950's and beyond. It is time to bring it back. But if we are going to present “being green” as a sustainable, positive live choice, we have to keep the convenience part.

I go to the bookstore or library in one of two modes: Browse mode or Get mode. In Browse mode, I'm looking for a good book in an approximate area. In Get mode, I know what book or author I'm after and I want a very short experience of locating that book. I may browse after, but if I don't get my book, I am very likely to leave without browsing. That's me acting on convenience. I want what I want pretty close to now.
The problem with most used bookstores is they are set up exclusively for browsing. They are more like junkyards than hardware stores. Books are chunked into rough areas and if I'm okay with any good sci-fi or drawing book, I'll probably find something. But if I'm looking for The Dancing Wu Li Masters or to replace my copy of Creating Affluence which has disappeared, I'm either going to have to buy new or order it on-line and wait.

I think there are a couple of models for used bookstores that could benefit more book stores, but also other purveyors of used stuff:

  • Treat used books (stuff) like new books. At Powell's, you can look up a book, find the number and then go to the shelf and pick new or used. My local indie bookstore also does this, and I think it's brilliant. I love being able to plan a trip there knowing I will be able to find a copy of the book I want.

  • Specialize. Comic book stores do this. They pick a genre and stock used and new books in that area. This increases the chances of success while browsing.

I have two used bookstores in biking distance. Both of them have really random assortments of stuff. Right now, I drive by the big one and hear myself thinking, “Oh! They're open. I should go look. Wait, is there anything I want right now? I do want that book by Deepak Chopra... what are the chances I can find it there? Not very good. Oh well. I can go home and read the one I have.” If the two stores worked out a trade where the small one had biographies and spiritual books, and the big one had the great cooking an literature and gardening sections, I'd visit both of them more often.

Another piece of the used book puzzle is that at some point books really are outdated. The number of 1970's mass-market books on redecorating vastly outweigh the demand. So, what do you do with them? I asked the guy behind the counter at one of the stores and he admitted, sadly, that part of his job means throwing books away. I think that anytime you have to send something to the dump, there's a potential innovation there. You can't recycle mass market books because the paper pulp used is so low quality that it won't withstand another cycle. So my thought is to round 'em up and use them in biomass heaters. Any other ideas?

Tuesday, December 11

A Practical Christmas

Christopher Kimball's "Letter From Vermont" for December landed in my inbox today. In it he writes:

Christmas in Vermont is, if nothing else, practical. Back in the 1960s, Marie Briggs, the baker, was up before dawn 364 days a year to cook for the farmhands. On Christmas Day, however, she got dressed up (still wearing sensible black shoes and with her hair in a bun) and was taken out to dinner by Floyd and Junior Bentley. That was her Christmas present. John, who used to live just across the valley from us, would bring over a gallon jug of homemade dandelion wine around the holidays. His wife, Lou, still brings over a box of homemade pizzelle, lightly sprinkled with confectioners' sugar and scented with anise. I bake molasses cookies for Charlie Bentley, and warm socks, gloves, hunting pants, Sorel boots, riding chaps, Georgia fatwood, and wool vests are the gifts of choice. An inline black powder rifle or a Bushnell scope would be the gift of a lifetime.

This, I think is the kind of Christmas my maternal grandparents knew. The Christmases I had with my parents were full of playing with toys and eachother and trying on new pajamas and ignoring the socks and underwear that found its way under the tree.

I appreciate now the way my parents tried to blend the practical with the indulgent. The orange in my stocking on Christmas morning was always a chance for my mom to tell the stories about when oranges were seasonal and expensive and very special, so an orange in the stocking was a gift, and not just filler. The Reese's peanut butter cups were my dad's favorite candy.

When I do Christmas with the family now, I am just amazed at what my nieces and nephews go through. They get indulgent presents from everyone, because it's so easy to provide oranges and bananas and underwear throughout the year. And these kids try to delight in every single present, and we adults try not to place too much importance on their expressions when they open them, but eventually they're just exhausted. All they wanted to do was play with the alphabet cards in their stocking and here we are trying to push through the gift giving so we can get on to food.

I think this is a metaphor for what it might mean to transition to a post-carbon economy. Bananas and oranges will be special again. Underwear will be more expensive. There will be fewer toys on Christmas morning and in the rest of our lives, but there might also be more time for relaxing with friends and family and less overall exhaustion.

Monday, December 10

Kyoto Volunteer

As I surf the web for blogs I like, I get caught up in trying to categorize myself. I'm not a strict buy nothing new crowd, but I take inspiration from them. I still drive, but I've cut my gas use in half and continue to look for further ways to reduce my driving. I do carbon offset and buy green energy, but I don't think those are a total solution. I re-make things and fix things and hang out with friends and work on my house. I live in a big-ish townhouse that was built before I graduated from high school and I try to share it with people so all of us have a lower house-footprint, but I'm not really a small-houser.

So, if I had to draw a category that fit me and could include others, I'd say I'm a Kyoto volunteer. I'm trying to live as if the US had signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol. That's a blend of being a conscious consumer and politically active.

Since the US hasn't signed the Protocol and the federal government is in a place of studiously avoiding making concrete recommendations, I go north for some guidance. The David Suzuki Foundation is one of my favorite sites to go to when I'm looking at what to work on next.

The work itself is boring. Last week I took a can of expanding foam around the exterior walls of my basement. I didn't take temp readings before and after, but all the regular users of my basement report and improvement.

I also finally figured out what to do to reduce the drafts off my patio doors. The goal was to include the aluminum frame in the sealing and to still be able to let the dog and people out the door at daily intervals, while allowing to sunlight to come in. If the frame of the door was cladded and transferred less heat outside, I would have put bubble wrap on the glass. If I didn't need the sunshine or to be able to open it, I would have covered it with styrofoam insulation. If I didn't need the morning light to fight my SAD, I would have put up a window quilt. But on Small Space, Big Style last week, one of the architects was pointing out his use of thick gauge plastic sheeting as a room divider. I realized that's the stuff restaurants use to make a pass-through divider to freezers. That gave me the idea of buying the heaviest clear shower curtain I could find. I hung it taut over the patio door with two Hercules hooks and weighted the bottom down with phone books. I got a 15 degree difference from next to the door to inside the plastic sheet, which is helpful when it's 23 degrees outside!

So, I take some pride in the boring little stuff that may or may not make a difference in my heating bill. But I know that cutting down on gas use, home heating, and home electrical, while increasing the number of people what I do serves, then I am making advances in cutting my carbon emissions.

Saturday, December 8

The problem with nagging people about "Stuff"

A couple of days ago, No Impact Man posted a link to this video on "The Story of Stuff". It's an entertaining video, but a few hours later I was reminded of how frustratingly general advice can be ignored. I was stuck in traffic and idling behind a huge SUV that sported a bumper sticker that said "One nation has 5% of the world's people, uses 50% of the world's resources, and generates 50% of the world's waste. That nation is US."

Well, when we talk about "Stuff" in general, we leave it to people to draw their own conclusions. The general is a principle, and a rule drawn from it gets specific.

There are three ways the general "stuff" discussion can get misapplied, I think:

1. "Buy used when you can" can lead to having an excess of stuff. I used to have a friend who spent every spare dollar she had at the thrift store buying everything nice that fit her or her daughter. She always looked great, but every place she moved had to be physically large enough to house her stuff.

2. "Buy multipurpose when you do buy" can turn into a justification for cars that can fit a family of 6, the dog, stuff for a two week vacation and the power to pull a boat too. The heavier an item gets, the more it contributes to both the resource use and the waste production. So, if you're really worried about what you're doing to the world with your consumption, look to buy lighter and used.

3. "Get rid of what you don't need" can turn into an insensitivity to how you are contributing to the waste stream. Many pack rats I know are stuck because they don't know how to pass items on to a good cause, while others I know think nothing about hauling perfectly good stuff off to the dump to get it out of their sight. Borrowing from Robert Kiyosaki who writes that you have to weigh the sale of a property when you buy it, and only by doing that will you make a profit, shop with the end of the product in mind.

I have too much stuff in many ways, much of it bought new or "on a great sale" because I "might need it some day." I tied up money that could be used for people on stuff. I am using space that people could be living in to store my stuff. So I'm not a paragon of this, and I realize that any rule drawn is going to cross part of my life and I have to deal with the discomfort of that. But I really think when we entertain "rules" in our heads that we find areas where we can make change.

Unbox Videos


NotSoBigLiving is the story of a woman inspired by Sarah Susanka, Bill McKibben, Airstreams, Tumbleweed houses, Mennonites, Jimmy Carter, hippies, survivalists, Anasazi, Pema Chodron and Joko Beck, Scott Peck, Buckminster Fuller, and Al Gore to see what she can do to reduce her carbon footprint in her mid-80's suburban townhome. Strategies include roommates, alternative travel, organic eating, planting a victory garden, mindfulness, and a belly full of laughter.