Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The "Private Book Club" Scout

Not so long ago I used to make a semi-weekly drive to Augusta, Georgia to hit the Goodwill stores in the area. At the time paperbacks were $0.49, hardbacks were $0.99, and children’s books were a quarter. This was also at a time when just about all the other Goodwill stores around, from Savannah to Atlanta and beyond, were selling books at twice that price or more. At one particular Augusta store (located in the more affluent area) with a comparatively large book section, it was not uncommon for me to roll up to the cash register with a buggy filled to the brim with surprisingly good stuff, books that often fetched $15 to $50 and more, sometimes much more. In the beginning the clerks were friendly and curious as to why I was buying so many books, and I would try to be creative in my answers, falling back of course on the standard “I just love to read” response whenever I drew a blank. In time the clerks grew more reserved with me at the check-out, and a couple of them began to regard me with a suspicious eye. Then, a few weeks later, things changed. I arrived one Friday morning as usual and was fairly shocked to see that the prices had, at the least, tripled, and many books were individually marked with prices of $7.50 or higher—at a thrift store, mind you, where books are donated. So I was standing there, looking at the spines and the new price stickers, when an employee who I’d never seen before came by.

“I see you folks have had a price increase on your books,” I said.

She gave me a sour look. “Would you believe that we actually had people coming in here buying up the books to sell on the internet? They were buying our books to re-sell…. Can you believe that?” She said it like it was a crime and she had a strong sense of justice.

“Amazing,” I said, and left it at that.

Before that day I’d always been a little wary of telling people that I had an online bookstore, but now I knew: Keep quiet about it.

But still, people were going to ask, and when they did, you had to say something (and, more importantly, it needed to sound convincing). But what?

It was soon thereafter that I got the answer. I was at the book section in another thrift store, going through the books, when a woman came up and began searching as well. After about ten minutes it became clear to me, judging from the number of books she was collecting in her buggy, that she and I were in the same business. Something was said between us and soon we were engaged in a friendly chat. She noted the books I had stacked up in my buggy and asked if I sold them online. Since I felt some camaraderie with her I slipped and said, “Yes, and you?”

“Oh, no,” she said.

I was taken aback slightly. “No?”

“No, I’m getting these for my husband.”

“Oh, so he sells books.”

“Um, no,” she said.

I was taken aback slightly more. “No?”

“Well, see, he’s in a private book club,” she said. “It’s between him and several of his friends that he went to the University with who now live all over the country. They’re all doctors and lawyers and such. They’ve got this big list, you see, of all the books that everyone has, and a big list of all the books that everyone wants, and right now I’m looking for some of the books that they want. See, all these books get traded and mailed back and forth. And there is some really amazing, rare stuff that gets passed around. But there’s no money involved, you see. And it’s a private club. It’s just between them.”

“Oh, how perfect,” I said. “How absolutely perfect.”