Monday, May 6, 2013

Bookstock: where books come to live

In what has become an annual tradition, Chris and I recently spent some quality time at Bookstock. The used book and media sale takes place in an old suburban mall where bibliophiles can sip on lattes and involuntarily sniff the Yankee Candle sale rack whilst sorting through paperbacks, collectibles, and the requisite boxes of encyclopedias.

I married well. Chris reads between 50-60 books per year, which makes me simultaneously proud and jealous. He’s a speed reader whereas I take weeks, sometimes months, to finish reading something for fun. I prioritize books meant for reviews, others as part of research. And while those count toward my year-end tally, I never out-read my spouse. Never.

Regardless, that amount of reading comes from a variety of sources. We love our indie bookshops in Michigan, and those discovered on roadtrips, but we also dip into the library and the used book sales to fill in the gaps. While I tend to hang onto most books, Chris keeps his personal library small and we often donate more books back to Bookstock than we purchase. It’s a continual cycle.

There are tens of thousands of used books at this particular book sale. I’ve often wondered where they all come from, where they end up. When I walk through the tables, lined up in sections spread throughout the mall, I see everything from last year’s bestsellers to seriously aged and yellowed paperbacks. There are most certainly some rare finds, but usually not by the time we get there.

Bookstock collects item donations throughout the year and the opening sale day is the only time the organization charges an admission fee. This is the day collectors and resale shops come in for first dibs on premiums. Chris and I usually wander through on day four or five of the weeklong event, happy to fill a bag or two of interesting finds that have value only in the content itself.

This year I had one of my curiosities answered. While perusing a stack of trade paperbacks (where I found Magical Thinking by Augusten Burroughs), a young woman asked one of the volunteers what happens to the leftovers at the end of the sale. I’ve wanted to ask the same thing, but haven’t for fear the answer would reveal a mysterious chop shop fate where discards are milled into pulp. I learned, though, this is not the case.

The volunteer said any books remaining after the sale are first offered up to local schools who wish to add titles to their libraries and community reading programs. Then they open the free-for-all to charities who can sell off some books in their thrift shops. The woman said most everything is snatched up this way, but that whatever is left will make its way to a donation center that accept remnants.

I like to think of where our own donated books end up. I imagine we drop them off for a whirlwind tour. First they bounce around the sorting facility until they’re categorized for the annual event. Then our used books are lined up neatly on a table—perhaps outside the coffee shop, or near the department store entrance—where booklovers will thumb their spines and one or two people will actually pick them out of the line-up, consider, and then slide them back into place. Maybe some of our books find homes that week, venturing off to a city condo or lakeside cottage for lazy summer day reading. I know, though, that some won’t be selected during the sale week and will have to wait until a school librarian or rep from the charity shop comes in to claim leftovers.

But, then, one day a student or low-income mother or too-cool hipster wanders the thrift shop and, even though she was on the hunt for vintage dinner plates, she couldn’t help but notice the books priced at a quarter. She selects three, one of which was ours, and takes it home to read over the weekend. Months later, when she’s clearing out her closet to make space for her new partner in life, she stacks those old books into a cardboard box and drives them to a donation center, where they will again go through this process. These books will continue on, offering a few hours of enjoyment to another stranger, united only by their fondness for a cover design and storyline.

And, just maybe, a few years from now as Chris and I wander the tables at Bookstock, I’ll come across a paperback that seems a little familiar, maybe reminds me of something, and I’ll wonder if I ever did read that book way back when. Maybe I’ll pick that paperback up and take it home, flip it open, and see the tiniest of coffee stains that says this book and I have met in a previous life. I’ll reacquaint myself with the spine, with the pages grown weary with age, and then when I tend to some cleaning, I’ll stack that book into a cardboard box and drive it over to the donation center, where the cycle will continue in its perpetual shelf life.  

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