Follow-up to Better World Books Article
By Susan Halas
November's lead story on Better World Books of Mishawaka, Indiana, not only attracted a greater than usual number of readers, but also evoked quite a bit of response both directly to AE and in the form of long running threads on various dealer and collector lists. We are following up with two unedited responses that we hope will help clarify the practices of the firm and the concerns of traditional book dealers.
We thank Better World Books for being kind enough to host our visit and also thank the many dealers, collectors and library patrons who wrote to express their opinion.
AE Monthly Writer
Reach Susan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Response to Article from Better World Books
By Tara Gilchrist
Head Antiquarian, Rare and Collectible Department
It was with pleasure that we welcomed Susan and AE readers to our warehouse, and we were happy to show her around and answer her questions. She was able to speak to executives and employees, to dig in our boxes and poke through our shelves.
Her viewpoint is that of a "bookseller", a traditional bookseller from the "old school". We understand and respect that tradition of knowledge and the craft of bookselling, and seek to keep the best of those traditions while using the book to make a powerful social impact. While Susan's article was fairly thorough, we appreciate the opportunity to clarify three points in particular.
It's not clear in the article that the tipper is only used for thrift books - not the books the libraries send us, or from campus book drives. It's used for the books that we purchase outright from the thrift stores, which arrive in big, unwieldy Gaylords. No client is losing any value with the tipper, as we outright own those books. The tipper makes it easier to sort the shoes, belts, and headless Barbie dolls from the actual books. No mention was made in the article of our improving that process, which has been underway for several months.
It was curious to read Susan's comment about the lack of intellectuals in our crowd; if it meant grumpy, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking, bushy-browed types, then that would be accurate. We apply our considerable intellect to designing the best programs for libraries, our customers, and those supported by our literacy partners.
As for the sensationalized headline of "Cultural Strip Mining": we are saving many books, every day, which may have otherwise been lost: from the $10 German-language 1940 agriculture report to Peter Force's Declaration of Independence to signed Picasso lithographs, we sell books to the curious, collectors, academics, libraries, and booksellers, at a fair price.
Calling out libraries for "letting these books go" without understanding where they are going is uninformed at best. The needs of academic and public libraries are constantly changing. Their primary directive is to provide relevant books and materials to their constituents, and they excel at this. They operate with a different definition of "value" than booksellers: libraries, without a doubt, value their culture and communities, and they are called to respond to those fluctuating needs in a timely manner. Booksellers value money. Librarians have a different skill set, and a different bottom line, than those of booksellers: they work hard to balance traditional needs with modern demands to best serve their public. Booksellers, on the other hand, work hard to generate the best profit: Susan has been selling books for over 60 years, and she's still learning new things, keeping up with changing markets and sales venues... every good bookseller is always doing these things, and cataloging books, and talking with customers... Librarians are dedicated to keeping up with the needs and values of an entire community; booksellers have other bottom-line priorities.
I believe we need to give the libraries a big round of applause. They are constantly seeking means to support their communities by providing them with a specific kind of immediate, cultural value, and finding homes for the books which no longer suit those needs. They do this under enormous pressure from their directors, under tight budget constraints, and with insufficient time to do the task. I suggest that Susan attend the summer ALA conference; I believe that Susan would do both librarians and booksellers a great service by writing a story about the choices and challenges of today's librarians, both academic and public; perhaps she will not be as critical after listening to librarians from all walks.