Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Confessions of a Book Scanning Goon

The Slate website has an interesting article, "Confessions of a Used Book Salesman," that caught my eye this evening.  It is written by Michael Savtiz, one of those obnoxious people that show up at library sales armed with a barcode scanner.  Those little gizmos give all kinds of pricing information tagged to a book's ISBN designation, allowing professional resellers to run off with everything of value in a matter of minutes.  If you've ever seen one of these goons in action, you will never forget them.  Often, they bring blankets or sheets along so that they can cover up whole sections of tables until they can get back to them.  As a group, they have ruined the library sale experience for thousands of "amateurs" who come to a sale hoping to find something nice or unusual to add to their personal collections.

The odd thing is that Savitz is self-aware enough to know, and admit, that he is a jerk for doing what he does - not that he plans to give up the odious practice.
If it's possible to make a decent living selling books online, then why does it feel so shameful to do this work? I'm not the only one who feels this way; I see it in the mien of my fellow scanners as they whip out their PDAs next to the politely browsing normal customers. The sense that this is a dishonorable profession is confirmed by library book sales that tag their advertisements with "No electronic devices allowed," though making this rule probably isn't in the libraries' financial interest. People scanning books sometimes get kicked out of thrift stores and retail shops as well, though this hasn't happened to me yet.
When I work with my scanner and there's someone else shopping near me who wants to read books, I feel that my energy is all wrong—high-pitched, focused narrowly in the present, and jealous. Someone browsing through books does it with a diffuse, forgetful curiosity, a kind of open reckoning that she learned from reading. Good health to you, reader. One day I will be like you again.
It is clear that Mr. Savitz knows that what he is doing is rude and far enough outside the rules of library sales that he should not be doing it. Of course, short of hiring armed guards, there is little that library staff can really do to stop this kind of behavior.  As with so many aspects of modern culture, those who have so little self-respect, and respect for others, will get their way.  The rest of us are too innately polite to make a scene.  That's what the behavior thugs count on.

I have to admit that this probably bothers me more than it does most people because it has ruined a favorite weekend pastime of mine.  I used to spend a few hours every Saturday morning scouting Houston's used-book stores in hope of finding something collectible for myself or for resale.  I relied entirely on my own knowledge and intuition about what might be valuable - or at least momentarily hot. I got pretty good at it, too.  Often, I would spend four or five hours browsing bookstores and come home with close to $100 more than I had in my pocket when I left home, plus a book or two to add to my own shelves.  The trick was knowing which bookstore on the route was likely to buy something from me that I plucked from one of their competitors that very morning.

I miss those days.  The store shelves around town these days are picked clean by people like Mr. Savitz, folks who don't read or collect books.  No, they loot them.  Frankly, they don't have any more respect for books and book people than I have for them.  I wholeheartedly agree with the NPR commentator who called the use of book scanners at library sales "classless."  Yes, indeed.


  1. Great post! Visiting your site for the first time, and glad to have come across this post.
    I had no idea this was a profession, and I'm a little shocked. Library sales are my favorite thing about american libraries - the $1 bag concept is unknown here in India.

    Dee from

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Dee. Yes, unfortunately, this practice is quite common in the U.S. these days. Library sales in larger cities are a zoo nowadays because of these animals with scanners.