I, a financial illiterate, have discovered my first leading economic indicator: the going rate for books sold at Half-Price Books. Friday afternoon I carried in two large moving-company boxes filled with them. My wife wanted to get rid of cookbooks we no longer use and the Spanish-language titles she expects never to read again (including Ernesto Sabato’s Sobre héroes y tumbas, when I want On Heroes and Tombs). I threw in some odds and ends, and swelled the gross tonnage to 50 books. Angel, one of the clerks, told me to return in 30 minutes so I grazed with the other ruminants.
My fellow customers proved more interesting than the predictable selection of books. The aísles were crowded. People browsed but, more encouragingly, talked about books. Mysteries and science fiction sparked the most chatter. I heard a woman say “Samuel Delany,” and saw another, seated on a step ladder, reading the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina. She reminded me of my favorite letter writer, Charles Lamb, and the letter he wrote his friend Thomas Manning on Feb. 6, 1808. In it, Lamb managed to coin a punningly fanciful etymology for “college”:
“I think public reading-rooms the best mode of educating young men. Solitary reading is apt to give the headach [sic]. Besides, who knows that you do read? There are ten thousand institutions similar to the Royal Institution which have sprung up from it. There is The London Institution, The Southwark Institution, The Russell Square Rooms Institution, etc. College quasi Con-lege, a place where people read together.”
(See Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti for a recent selection from Lamb’s letters.)
After completing my rounds, I checked back with Angel who made me an offer: $15.50. I was parting with the most books I had ever sold to Half-Price Books and was, in return, receiving the smallest amount of cash. I took it, silently. I didn’t feel like repacking two boxes, carrying them back to the car and explaining why to my wife. I would have felt like Jack telling his mother about the magic beans, which I did anyway. Angel said, “Everybody’s selling books. They need the money. We can’t afford to pay ’em as much.” The supply and demand of used books: my first economic indicator.
Next in line was a very old woman with a severely curved spine. She had a stack of four or five mass-market paperbacks in front of her, with a John Gresham title on top. A clerk offered her one dollar. The woman looked at the clerk, the books, at me, and back at the clerk. “Oh,” she said, and her mouth remained in a small “O.” She took the money.