It’s been six months since I started volunteering at the Friends of the San Francisco Library and I have to say it’s the most fun I’ve ever had not getting paid to work.
Most days, I help out at the donations center where all of the donated books get processed. At one end of the spectrum, we receive the odd antiquarian book, truly rare first edition or books of historical significance that can fetch hundreds or thousands of dollars in the collectors market. At the other end are the musty and mottled textbooks that no used bookstore in their right mind would pay money for, but the Friend of the Library accepts and will attempt to get a buck or two for. The vast majority of books fall somewhere in the middle – reading copies of books that may or may not be in fashion.
The reality of the situation is, as most used book retailers know, that the number of readers out there is a fairly static number (and as ebooks continue to make inroads as the format of choice, print book readership will surely shrink), but every year, tens of thousands of new books get added to the slush pile. Some are destined to become perennials, but most have a very limited shelf life. The result: the percentage of printed books in circulation that are in demand grows smaller every year.
It’s been about 10 years since I last worked in a used bookstore (see my elegy to the now defunct bookstore in question). Much of my volunteer work at the FotL is just like the old days of used book retail: You receive books, process them to separate the wheat from the chaff, file and price. The main difference is that whereas the relatively large used bookstore I used to work at processed a few thousand books a month, the San Francisco Friend of the Library processes over ten thousand books A WEEK. In my 8 hours or so a week that I help out, I get to look at maybe 10% of those books, but even that sliver offers an incredible window into a hundred plus years of book history.
It’s a true joy to see how cover designs evolve over the years, or watch bestselling authors disappear for decades, only to reemerge in the latest format with a new push. Old books expose the prejudices and manias of the past, which can make for a good laugh or a moment of shame (or both). I get a little thrill every time I come upon a book twice my age that looks just like new — how does that happen? It can be uplifting to flip through ramshackle artbooks and see gorgeous prints that will make wonderful wall hangings for a future buyer, and a little depressing to see hundreds of consumer software guides for the Windows 95 operating system that are destined to be pulped.
Of all my observations these six months past, nothing is more striking than the ascendency of the thriller. Back when I was a teenage bookstore clerk, we had a whole separate building dedicated to “popular fiction,” which included mass-market authors like Tom Clancy, John Grisham and Danielle Steele. We had a mystery section for your Agatha Christies and Tony Hillermans. What’s changed since is that that lined has blurred to insignificance. EVERYBODY is writing thrillers, usually with a recurring lead character. Authors like Michener, Uris and Sheldon have disappeared, with their contemporary counterparts either skewing highbrow in presentation or jumping on the procedural bandwagon. Increasingly fantasy has started to edge in that direction (or, perhaps its more accurate to say that procedural readers are more open to vampires and magic). None of this is really news, but it really is striking when you see how sharply mass-market fiction has changed in just over a decade.
Finally, processing used books can be a melancholy affair. Book people tend to be collectors, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that many donations come from estates when a reader passes away and leaves behind a lifetime of books. Opening boxes of donations, or even more so, picking up books on site, can be an incredibly intimate experience. One part of my brain is figuring out how to categorize a stack of books while the other half wonders what sort of person would have amassed this particular arrangement. Did they purchase these books themselves as eager readers, or were they gifts? Did the original owner actually read the books or were they mostly for show? Some day (not soon, I hope!) when someone unpacks my collection of books, what will they think?