Missing the point (or not)

This past weekend, we made what has become our annual pilgrimage to Lebanon, NH, for the Five-Colleges Book Sale, where I’m typically surrounded by 30,000 or so of my good friends—that is, used books. Love it, love it, love it.

But for the first time, I really noticed the presence of the book dealers. If you hang out at these kinds of things, you probably know ’em, too—also called book scouts, they’re the ones armed with the PDAs outfitted with bar code scanners, and they typically flit from book to book, not even caring what the book itself is but rather simply interested in how much it could get them on the open market. The scanner allows them to get a fair market price in more-or-less real time… if the price is past some threshold, they scoop up the book, with the intent to resell it later on eBay or Amazon or such.

In this case, they weren’t doing anything wrong—the pre-sale announcements for the sale explicitly stated that dealers were welcome—and they were actually pretty well-behaved, not pushing their way past you to get to a book (for the most part). And because they need to be able to quickly get a row of books quickly, they actually (in many cases) helped to tidy up rows of books that had become strewn all over the place, as they needed to line the books up for themselves to be able to scan a bunch of books quickly. So that was a nice side benefit.

But I kept thinking to myself: Do they even see the books? I mean, see them as books and not just as a quick buck? For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a love affair with used book store and sales, going back to the days when I first discovered Half Price Books growing up. I love just spending hours poring over rows and stacks of them, often alternating between joy upon finding a hidden surprise (“wow, there’s a book for that!”) and amusement (“wow, there’s a book for that?”). They’re not just things, but things to treasure and savor. Yes, I’ve sold my fair share of used books—but only after enjoying them for what they were and then wanting to pass them on to someone else so that they could get the same joy out of them. But to have them simply pass through my hands without ever actually reading them? I can’t even fathom it.

So yeah, I guess I can understand the motivation behind the dealers. But then again, I guess I don’t.