Disappearing Ink: What will happen to all the books?

Disappearing Ink: What will happen to all the books?
Claire Lawton
Scene from the Volunteer Nonprofit Service Association’s book-sorting warehouse in Phoenix.

On a cool Thursday evening in January, several women gather around folding tables in a Central Phoenix warehouse to sort thousands of books, pausing only to pull out a greeting card used as a bookmark or to show off a rare find. This ritual takes all year — and every year, the work of putting together what's billed as one of the largest used-book sales in the country is the same. Only the titles change.

The volunteers quickly pull worn copies of Amy Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses, Relationships for Dummies and anything by Maurice Sendak out of grocery bags, stick them with color-coded price tags and place them neatly into a maze of tall shelves filled with salvaged produce boxes labeled by genre and topic.

A few weeks later those books and about a half-million others took their places inside Veterans Memorial Coliseum on the Arizona State Fairgrounds for the 57th Annual VNSA Used Book Sale.

By the time you read this, book fans will have lined up around the block in the dark with big empty bags, waiting hours for the gates to open. Volunteers will have hustled between rows of tables, and, by the end of the two-day sale, the VNSA — which used to stand for Visiting Nurse Service Auxiliary but now means Volunteer Nonprofit Service Association — will have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to benefit local charities.

And though many customers and VNSA groupies will have arrived at the sale looking for first editions and rare finds, just as many will be happy taking home an Amy Tan or a copy of Chicken Soup With Rice.

But not all the books donated to VNSA were so lucky. Some didn't even make it to the sale table. The sorting process is pretty brutal, and those that didn't make it — just about anything by Dan Brown or Danielle Steel and, this year, a glut of Lance Armstrong biographies — were chucked into grocery carts and pushed to the back of the warehouse where the lights aren't as bright. 

Some of those books in the back of the room will be split among nursing homes, food banks and the local jail.

The rest will be turned into pulp.

The volunteers note that the VNSA's main goal is to raise money for charity and that even the books that end up in the recycle bin are worth cash. Organizations called "disposal buyers" snatch up recyclable books and ship them to plants where they're turned into a mush of paper pulp and sold as a raw material. The VNSA gets a cut of that sale.

No one with the organization tracks data by the individual book, but VNSA officials estimated a few days before this year's sale that of the half-million or so books donated, 400,000 would be put up for sale.

About 80 percent of the books offered for sale typically are purchased, and the rest were bought by a single California-based buyer who will go through another process of sorting, selling and tossing.

Back in that Central Phoenix warehouse, when asked how many of the books get thrown in the Dumpster throughout the sort, the volunteers exchange uneasy glances and softly agree, "Quite a few."


The truth is that we just don't have room on our shelves for all those books, and nobody wants to be the last stop before the Dumpster. This year, the VNSA took in a record number of books, many donated by used bookstores.

"Our donor base has definitely changed in the last few years, since the change in our economy and the introduction of electronic readers," says Barbara Simonick, communications director for the VNSA. "Larger numbers of our donations are coming from local booksellers."

That doesn't mean that we don't love books.

The irony is that as Kindles, Nooks and iPads gain in popularity, so does nostalgia for their printed predecessor. Although industry experts estimate that more books than ever were published last year, people act as though the book already has taken its place in history as an artifact — or an endangered species, at least, fetishized and celebrated like a polar bear or a California condor.

"Save the Whales" T-shirts, step aside. The book has captured the retro-minded hipster's heart, imagination and cash. You can buy book-scented candles and perfume. Card catalogs are among the most coveted vintage items at flea markets.

And if you do actually buy an e-reader, well, you'll cloak it in a case designed to look like the tattered cover of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — if you're cool.

But here's a fact that will have the book- obsessed quaking in their Converses: Way more books than you can imagine are tossed in Dumpsters every day.

It's not just the VNSA. Far from it.

Turns out you can't give away a good book these days. In 2010 the Chicago Public Library released a letter explaining that because of budget cuts, book donations no longer were accepted. It cost too much to sort, input and shelve the thousands of books that came through donation bins. Libraries across the country soon followed.

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5 comments
JamesMadison
JamesMadison topcommenter

Book clubs used to be a big source of book buying. A group would all read the same book, and discuss it weekly. They are not as popular as they once were, but there is a renewed interested: (NSFW) http://coedtoplesspulpfiction.wordpress.com/ (NSFW). Anyone wanting to start a similar book reading club in STL?

smdrpepper
smdrpepper topcommenter

I hate to say I am guilty of this as well.  While I still have books everywhere in my house, it ended up being a pain in the ass to get new ones AND find a place to store them. 

So I cheated and bought a Nook. 

It works, does what its supposed to, but I do miss going to a book store.  It is also much cheaper, instead of spending literally hundreds of dollars on books, I end up spending around fifty.

Its sad, and I miss real books, but its the way the world turns.

JamesMadison
JamesMadison topcommenter

@smdrpepper , donate books to your local library. If some books are appropriate for children, those can be donated to organizations that will get them to underprivileged children. Kidsmart used to do this. Not sure if they still do, but others will.

It is not cheating to read an electronic version of a book. As long as the author and proofreaders/editors are getting paid, we do not need to cut down trees to make paper to rot in boxes in your basement or wherever.

sharac
sharac

@smdrpepper I have done the same for the same reasons.  Boxes of books fill the basement and a number of bookshelves are overflowing.  I still prefer to hold a real book while reading but I can't give up any of my books and there's no room to put any others.  :(

Juliette
Juliette

@sharac @smdrpepper 

I have a kindle and real books. The kindle helps because I find it hard to read small print plus it is back lit for reading without the lights on. I do love the feel and smell of a book.

 
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