I went to Half Price Books today to look for a book for my husband and as I strolled into the aisle for clearance books, I came upon a disturbing sight. At the end of the aisle was a woman with her back to me and a cart partially filled with books.  I could hear a repetitious beeping noise as she looked through the books, occasionally pulling one out and tossing it into her cart.  She glanced briefly at me, but made no attempt to get out of the way so that I could peruse the shelves, which she and her cart were mostly blocking.

I moved along to search for, and find, the book for my husband, then found a collection of Wendell Berry essays on land.  My continual search for anything by Joel Salatin came up empty yet again, so I decided I would go back and try the clearance section once more.

She was still there, still blocking the area.  But now I could see that she had in her hand some sort of scanner (and another one in the cart), which she was running over the ISBN codes at the bottom of the books; each and every book, I might add.  Although I did manage to squeeze in, I couldn’t really look very well and she wasn’t budging.  So I asked her what she was buying for.  Her reply was that she bought and then re-sold on the internet.  Evidently her little scanner was letting her know what books would be good to sell.

I gave up on the clearance area and when coming across a sales person near the front of the store, made passing reference to this woman.  The salesperson replied with a downward quirk of her lips that the woman with the scanner was there almost every day.  I bought my two books and left.  But it occurred to me that it was a sad day for book-lovers everywhere.  Or maybe not; maybe I’m the only one.

I felt the same way when Half Price Books got online.  Prior to that, I’d search each time I came in for a few special books that I desired but didn’t want to spend a fortune getting.  I found The Fireside Book of Folk Songs (http://www.amazon.com/Fireside-Book-Songs-Margaret-Bradford/dp/B000NWY0W4) after literally months of searching the sheet music section on every single trip (and I made a lot of trips there) and the smile I gave probably lit up the entire store.  I did manage to refrain from shouting, but just barely.  The price on the sticker?  $4.98.  I found A Child’s History of the World by V. M. Hillyer and a plethora of books deemed desirable by home schoolers like myself.  I scored amazing children’s book, more cookbooks than I really needed and all sorts of other finds, all at excellent prices.  Once the computers came in, the bargains were over, other than the half price part.  Now some older books are even marked at more than half their cover price.

I don’t think it should be against the law for anyone to use a scanner or other technology to find books to buy or to use the internet to price books, but it certainly makes it much more difficult for the rest of us. It also takes away something of the immense joy and anticipation of scrounging through piles of books, looking for just the right one, when you know that most likely someone has already culled the shelves or the tables at the library sale electronically and is then reselling at an obviously higher price.  She probably isn’t looking for many of the books I search for religiously:  Rosemary Sutcliff, Arthur Ransome, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, the sorts of children’s books meant also for adults, the type so out of favor these days because they don’t showcase witches, vampires, paranormal romance, hateful high school students, hot boys or girls.  But she might be.  She might be looking for the myriad of adult books I still hope to find, preferably in hardcover.  Or not.  I don’t know and I don’t care.  I don’t dislike her for it (although I do resent her blocking the aisle and being unwilling to move, in case I, with my two little eyes, might spot something she hadn’t reached yet with her trust scanner.)  But I do think it’s another move away from a culture in touch with books for something more than their monetary value; where people are not only willing to hunt for just the right book,  but look forward to the hunt and take joy, not only in the finding, but in the searching.

  1. julie bozarth says:

    it is sad. i used to find wonderful prices for d. e. stevenson and elizabeth goudge books at used book stores, but i don’t find them any more. the other sad thing is finding that used book stores won’t accept an author from me, whom i like – it means i will never find another of their books there. it is as if any book that is too old to have an ISBN, is not sellable. and the things i really find interesting are quite possibly from before the time of ISBNs. i saw bunches of people with scanners as you described, at our local university women’s annual used book sale at our local high school. i figured they were dealers of some sort. there were thousands of books there and there they were trying to scan them all.

    • The Half Price Books in Naperville has a rack of paperbacks enclosed in plastic that are all about $1. They’re the books like old Mary Stewart and all sorts of other books of that type and era. I remarked that those books look like what’s in my attic!