by Hugh Gilmore
Early May, a Thursday: We had purchased and removed 80 boxes of books from a scholar’s library in Villanova and brought them back to my house in Chestnut Hill. Since I specialize in old and rare books, and this collection held recent hardbacks and trade paperbacks, I did not plan on having them with me very long.

We laid out some boards on the floor of the carport, covered them with tarpaulins and set the books on them. We wrapped the tarps around the books carefully. It would probably take a week of full days to go through the boxes and do several levels of sorting to determine where the books went next. With my laptop computer and wireless Internet, I could work in the carport. No sense handling 80 boxes more than twice. Hah.

On Saturday the first horrendous rains of May came hurling from the sky. Even with tarps, the books were not safe outside. High humidity curls pages, especially those of paperbacks. Every drop in the condition of a book causes a dip in value.

The books needed to be moved, but I was the only one home. As a farmer would do before a hailstorm, if cornstalks were portable, I brought all 80 boxes inside and stacked them throughout my living room and dining room. Just for a day or two, I told myself – till the rain lets up. Hah, again.

First we needed to check each book against the range of asking prices on Amazon Books. We would keep some of the books to sell on the Internet. Others we would sell at heavy discount to another Internet dealer. It takes us an hour of labor to sell a book on the Internet. (Handling it, listing it, managing correspondence, collecting payment, processing the order, wrapping the package, and dropping it at the post office). Our base point for what we decide to keep, usually, is $40.

Two-thirds of that amount goes into the cost of the book, the listing fees, the sales commissions, office supplies, utilities, and so on. We can’t earn enough selling cheaper books on the Internet. Especially since, on average, it takes about five years to sell about half the books. In this case, with the professor’s library, we kept about three boxes – out of 80. Not a great average.

The larger group we formed consisted of books we would sell to Harvest Book Company in Fort Washington. They’d offer them on Amazon Books for $5 on up. Eugene Okamoto, of Harvest Books, and I have a friendly and long-standing business relationship. I called and gave him a heads-up. As quickly as I could process the books at home (about 200 books a day), I brought them to his loading dock. Four trips over six days and he had 49 boxes from me.

Fingers crossed – I never can predict how many of my books Harvest will take. The Internet is a monstrous beast we all try to keep fed, never knowing what its appetite will be like on any given day.

At Harvest an employee scans the barcodes on the books, gets an instant reading from Amazon books that says something like:

“There are 26 copies of this book for sale on the Internet, between $12.00 and $30.00. We suggest you price your copy at $11.25.” Using their own protocols, Harvest decides to buy or pass.

If they buy, they pay me 22 cents on the dollar. Not much, but like the “Seven and a half cents” song in “The Pajama Game,” it adds up if you’ve got a lot of books to sell. (And while I wish the number were higher, I also know that Harvest Books is not a charity and its staff is down from around 40 to about 8 people nowadays, even though they are just about the biggest and most successful Internet seller of used books on the East Coast.

(These are rough days in the used book world, almost equivalent to the LP-to-CD shift two decades ago, as the reading population switches over to e-books.)

The books Harvest doesn’t keep will be returned or recycled. Because I was so personally involved with this “professor’s library,” I said I wanted to retrieve their rejects. So, nine boxes came back home.

Time for some math. Of the original 80 boxes, we kept three for our own business, sold (net) 40 boxes to Harvest, kept two for reading. There were still 35 boxes of books – wonderful, clean, interesting, stimulating books – but worth just about nothing on the Internet. I don’t have a shop anymore, so the dollar-table outlet was not possible. I knew I’d be giving a lot of them to charity, but I was very involved in following through on the “Big Bang” idea concerning the dispersal of these books.

Memorial Day weekend I held a garage sale. A lot of work for a little money, but also a lot of fun because you get to meet and talk to the buyers. One of the highlights of the sale, in addition to meeting some people who say they read my column (thank you), was the sudden appearance of Molly Russakoff, owner of Molly’s Books and Records on 9th Street in the Italian Market. I’d heard of her, but not met her before. She is charming, loves books, is a poet and memoirist herself, and has a voracious appetite for books. She bought four cartons of books, mostly poetry, fiction, and philosophy for her store.

Overall, I probably sold about 500 books at the sale. Right now, Memorial Day afternoon, about 200 remain, all sitting neatly boxed at the curb, a big “Free” sign in front of them. Every once in a while I hear a car pull up and I glance out the window and see someone happily browsing, as pleased with the selections, I hope, as the prices. Whatever isn’t taken will go to charities.

This four-part series began as an attempt to explain to my fellow book lovers what happens to our precious libraries nowadays when we have to give them up. Yesterday, concerning the professor’s books, I examined our sales records thus far, called Eugene Okamoto about his, and talked to a lot of people at the sale this weekend.

The results so far:  Some of the professor’s books now stand on other persons’ shelves in four different Texas cities. Others of his books went to Iowa City, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, California, Florida, and Kentucky. We have also sold some to New Zealand, France, and Brazil.

Hundreds of the professor’s books now reside in homes in Chestnut Hill, Wyndmoor, Plymouth Meeting, and Mt. Airy. About 150 of them are now for sale in the Italian market at Molly’s Books and Records.  Several dozen are also on the night tables of the Gilmore family bedroom. The dispersion goes on.

It’s sad, in a way, isn’t it, the fate of our libraries? And yet, it’s comforting to know that the very human hunger for knowledge and wisdom continues. And good to know that others will use the professor’s books to carry on their own personal quests to understand the world. We all do what we can. I’m very proud to have played a part in helping the professor continue teaching. will lead you to more of Hugh Gilmore’s writing.


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