The Joy (& Stories) of Used Books

Photo of piles of books for NA FIeld Day Used Book Sale 2012
Day 2 of preparing for NA's used book sale: Sorting
the used books into categories
My love affair with used bookstores began when I was growing up in Caracas. An American charity that my mom was involved with, the Children's Service League, raised money for hospitals that served poor and handicapped children. The group sold handmade Christmas ornaments made by women who met every week to sew and socialize. They also had two side businesses for the expat community, a bootleg Betamax movie rental shop and a used bookstore.

During the summers when my mom spent the mornings sewing, she left my sister and me at the bookstore. We were soon drafted into helping organize and sell the books. Each week we came home with a bag of books, which we read the rest of the week. (I still have the box set of Edgar Rice Burrough's Martian series from those days). 

Fast forward some decades later, and I find myself co-chairing Norfolk Academy's used book fair that is part of its annual Field Day. In the two weeks leading up to Field Day (Sat., May 5), we will have sorted hundreds of books, organized and shelved them, and created a used bookstore from scratch. 

Here's what I love about the whole venture. The books people donate:
  • Tell a story of their lives. We got boxes filled with picture books and board books. A box contained SAT prep guides. Another one had a series of books about coping with cancer and on how to die with dignity. These boxes so starkly reveal the passing stages of peoples' lives.
  • Reveal the most interesting and arcane interests. It's amazing how deeply one can delve into the most specific, random, and interesting topics. Based on the books we've received, we've had devotees of Harley Davidsons, UFOs in West Virginia, criminal justice, and flower arrangement. Or maybe these are people disillusioned with those topics, eager to rid themselves of the books.
  • Contain fragments of their lives. In the books we have found recipes used as bookmarks; old invitations and cards; dedications to friends and family; photos (such as a 1970s era one of a woman wearing a shirt with "Cocaine" written in the style of Coke's logo), and even a menu from a fraternity dinner dated 1915. The excellent website Forgotten Bookmarks run by a used and rare bookseller documents these types of old and lost items found in used books.
Part of a newspaper found lining the bottom of a box of books.
Safe to say this outfit is out of business.
  • Can show a kindred spirit. Sometimes I'll sort a box where half the books are on my own bookshelf or have been favorite books. I love those boxes because I'm sure the other books in them will be ones I would enjoy. I view these as recommendations for good reads.
  • Can be more valuable than people expect. We received a couple of boxes of like new, first edition books that turned out to sell online anywhere from $10-$200. Smartphone apps that scan barcodes and book seller sites like and now make it easy to find out the market value of books.
Our cart of first editions and/or signed books
  • Reveal reading trends. Back in the 1980s at the used bookstore in Caracas, popular authors included Agatha Christie, James Mitchner, Stephen King, and Robert Ludlum. Now in 2012, popular "airport reads" include Dan Brown, John Grisham, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, and Jodi Picoult, to name a few. Stephen King and Robert Ludlum continue to show up, a testament to the longevity of their brands. And it's amusing to see multiple copies of out of favor books like Iacocca's autobiography.
  • Remind me of the thrill of discovery. As I buy more books online or electronically, I almost have forgotten the thrill of discovering books by happening upon them in a bookstore or on a shelf. Every box we open is a minor revelation. Discovering books is so different now: social media & online sources of information overshadow physical serendipity.  
photo of NA Field Day Used Book Sale 2012
All ready for Field Day

So what would your used books reveal about you? In the age of increasing e-readers, will the used bookstore business boom because people are getting rid of their paper books, or will it wither as fewer paper books are bought? What do you think?

Local folk: If you're interested in checking out the books, they will be on sale during Norfolk Academy's Field Day, Saturday May 5. Starting at 1 p.m., the books go half price, and at some point in the afternoon, we have a $5 bag sale (where you get as many books as can fit into a bag for $5). Proceeds from our sale go to Norfolk Academy programs, and unsold books are donated to Up Center Books, which trains and employs homeless and very low-income people. 

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