book sale

The Library Book Sale: A Micro Economics Story

Every month our nearby branch of the county library system holds a book sale.  If you’re paying attention to the schedule, you can spend some time on the last Saturday of the month perusing the tables on which thousands of books are stacked.  The deals are great: you can score mass market paperbacks for a quarter, or hardback reference books for as little as a dollar.  Even our Half Price Book stores around here don’t offload books for these prices.

The library has a bin just inside the door where any day you visit, you can deposit books you own but no longer want.  And each month, the Friends of the Library hold this book sale, offering whatever is donated in the bin.  This is pure profit to the library, and allows people an easy way to support the library without dragging out the checkbook.

There’s no index or inventory list available.  Nobody really tracks what’s donated.  During the sale, shallow boxes sit on the tables filled with books – spine up so you can read the titles.  That’s how you know what’s for sale.  You dig.  For treasure.

So I hear lately there has been a group of enterprising people coming to the book sale with electronic scanners, scanning each book they pick up and deciding from the readout whether or not to buy it.  The scanners beep when they do this (a mild annoyance, but not one occurring in the Library Proper) and it draws attention to what the group has been doing.  And people have begun to complain.

‘They don’t want the books for themselves,’ the complaints go. ‘They want to sell them for profit.’

‘They take books out of the sale that other people might want.’

‘They’re profiting off of a charity sale.’

And as I hear the complaints, my heart sinks.

People in general have such a miserable understanding of free markets and economics.  Place blame where you will, the fact remains that the people at this book sale with scanners are doing a good thing.

The Friends of the Library could probably make much more money for the library if they sold the books online.  However, the cost and inconvenience of doing so might be more than it’s worth to them, and would actually put them in an entirely different line of business – selling and shipping books online, rather than fundraising for the library.  The fact that they’ve limited themselves to once-a-month sales out of a library conference room tells me that they’ve made the calculations and decided it’s more effort to:

  • index the books
  • enter them all individually online for sale
  • store and maintain the inventory
  • check and process the orders
  • and ship (and maybe even insure) the books to buyers around the country

That’s a lot more work than throwing open a conference room once a month and letting people come in and browse.  And it would result in a lot of higher book prices for the people casually walking in to look through the books.

The folks with the scanners, however, probably have a system by which to do all these things.  And the incentive is built in.  They’re buying an inventory at a ridiculously low price, then selling it for an excellent markup.  The books they find priced at a quarter or so they can often sell for a dollar.  The dollar books might bring in two or three dollars.  Because they are willing to take those extra steps, they can offer the books to a much larger pool of buyers online, and thus charge a higher price than the library. Multiply that by thousands of books and dozens of libraries, and you have the essence of capitalism and free enterprise.

  • Buy low
  • Sell high
  • Repeat often

These scanner-wielding book buyers do something else, too.  They increase the income for the library significantly.  Using technology, they identify undervalued books in the inventory (a step that the Friends of the Library probably can’t afford to do) and buy them up, guaranteeing the library more revenue from book sales than if only the casual book browsers were allowed in.  Rather than harming the library’s income, these buyers are responsible for a large portion of it.

They’re also performing a huge service to used book buyers like me.  Every time I’m in the library I check the small ‘for sale’ rack, but that’s merely a fraction of what’s offered during a sale.  I’ve collected classic novels for years, and most of them I’ve picked up at sales like this.  But when the Little Critter needs an emergency copy of Farenheit 451 in less than a week and I haven’t found one yet, the online booksellers save me.  Not only can I be sure to find a copy online when I need it (rather than waiting for the next sale and hoping to score one two weeks late), but I’m guaranteed to find it at a much better price than at the local used bookstores.  That’s because this process is being repeated all over the country, and there are plenty of Ray Bradbury novels available online for about a buck.

And I also don’t have to leave the house and talk to people to get one.  But that’s a story for another day.

This is what a good number of enterprising people do.  They buy something undervalued (at an estate sale or a storage unit sale or a garage sale, for example) and then find a way to offer it for sale to a broader potential customer base at a higher price.  Those are the endeavors they make reality shows about.  But I guess some people think of a book a little differently from a bookshelf.  And that’s depressing, because what a good opportunity for someone with very little capital to earn some extra money.  What a great way for someone having to make ends meet on a tight budget to supplement their income.  And what a great way to think about how to create value that’s applicable to so many other areas of life.

People are complaining about the distracting beeps of the scanners and the profiteering, instead of cheering cleverness and free enterprise and providing a valuable service.  This is why we have to get better about telling the stories behind the economic principles we espouse.  Because there ought to be much, much more of this going on.