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?


Jennifer said...

Other good ideas for used books... compost! Shred it up and use it for brown matter. Or... how about gluing several together to make a stool, using the pages as wrapping paper.
My inlaws are actually cutting the binding ends off of a bunch of trashed books to create a "fake book" bookcase cover for the tv in their library... still creates some waste, but uses a little of what would be trashed.

I love my local used bookstore... I try to stop there first when I am looking for something. But, yo are right. They don't always have it!

monkey said...

well... some of those decorating books make fabulous white elephant party gifts ^,^

i actually bought a 1950's medical dictionary because it was so mad what they took for cures (and the little bit about "you can beat the atomic bomb" was hysterical)

not entirely sure.
i'm from a family that thinks destroying a book is a crime. unless it's patricia cornwell... and then you may light them on fire.

used book stores would do well to either sort like a new store, or even sort like a library. both systems are not hard at all. and i honestly think it would help more people to go in and look. (twitches and resists urge to re-arrange shelves...)
nope... i havent been tossed out yet for rearranging ^,^ yet.

Emily the Great and Terrible said...

I've started relying almost exclusively on the library. It's so easy to find things--they'll even find it for me if I ask. Plus, I cut down on storage space. I know people who need a whole room of their house for books, and they have to heat/cool it, light it, etc,plus other people don't have ready access to it.

Libraries are the original commune, if you think about it.

Emily the Great and Terrible said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
topazsfp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
topazsfp said...

Build a bookshelf or bookcase from books, like this one.

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.