By Josh Niesse
“Do you take books?” asked the caller, one of 5 or more we field a day.
“Yes, but we are very picky about what we buy, we only want –“
“No I’m not looking to sell them,” the caller cut me off, “I’m just wanting to get rid of them.”
Anyone dealing in used books these days is likely faced with staggering multitudes of books that no one wants. At our little shop we see as many as 1,000 books a week, of which only about 10% (or less) are ones we really want for our shelves. Half of our time is spent sifting through the biblio-debris looking for decent “store stock” (popular & desirable, if common, titles) while finding the occasional interesting or scarce gem we can sell online for $100 or more. Sometimes people bring in really good books, and for them we offer cash or store credit, but more often people are just dropping off unwanted books.
Why are there so many books flowing into the second-hand/donation stream? I’m sure there are lots of answers to this, but to name a few: the proliferation of e-books making bulky libraries less necessary, massive online sellers like Amazon driving used book prices into the ground, a decline in sincere book collecting, etc. to name a few. But there have also just been tens of millions of books printed over the last hundred years that are no longer relevant. The 1970’s sociology textbook in the back with coffee stains on it, or the 1983 stock market guide, or this 1991 travel guide to Belize, or the children’s “Golden Book” title with the first 4 pages ripped out and crayon scribbling on the rest of the pages.
After opening the bookstore in 2011, I realized how overwhelming the volume of unwanted books was turning out to be. Most of the unwanted material I donate to Goodwill. I would sometimes take it to the local Friends of the Library, but realized how overwhelmed they were with unwanted books, and didn’t want to burden them. The staff at the local Goodwill said they took unsellable books to a pulp mill for recycling, which seemed better than the landfill at least. Influenced by green business authors such as Paul Hawken and William McDonough I started thinking about how to turn this abundant unwanted resource into something useful. It turns out the internet is insanely overflowing with ideas for projects using unwanted old books. Some customers showed us ideas they had. We carried some other folks work for awhile, before starting to make our own. One of Underground Books’ best-selling items now are the vintage book journals, in which we take broken, damaged, or otherwise unsellable old books and rebind them with blank pages. We also turn spines into bookmarks, and pages into buttons and magnets. These are just a few easily commercialized projects, but we also made a book arch for Josh & Megan’s wedding, and have started experimenting with original art-collages, among others.
One a week or so, someone in the shop sees the book arch and gasps “oh I can’t believe you did that to those books!” I always patiently explain that the books used were completely unsellable, damaged, etc. and they usually understand. When they are persistently negative about I still remain polite, but what I would like to say is “hold on” and go get the 10 boxes of crap books from the back and ask them to go through and pick out the ones they want to buy to save from destruction.
For the last year we’ve been improving our book crafting operation, especially with the help of book journal wizardess Miranda McMillan. We recently quietly opened a second location from which we are managing the online portion of the bookstore and warehousing the substantial volume of books we are processing, giving us even greater access to unwanted books for crafting.
We are excited to be showing off our book crafting operation this weekend in Decatur at the 2014 Atlanta Maker Faire where you’ll also be able to see 200 booths showing off 3D printers, drones, lock-picking, fighting robots, honey-bees, art-bikes, home-brewing and much more! Mention this blog post at the Maker Faire and get a free button or magnet! Hope to see you there!