The mass-market paperback book that we know today was born during WWII when the cost of paper was less than its transportation. Cheap paper and binding meant publishers could print a higher number of books at a relatively low cost around the country. When books weren't selling by the end of the fiscal year, bookstores began claiming losses by tearing off the covers and sending them to the publishers. This created an audit trail for booksellers and was cheaper for both parties.

But coverless books began popping up at thrift stores and flea markets, and in the 1990s, publishers began printing copyright notices on the insides of cheap paperbacks that read: "If you purchased this book without a cover, it has been reported to the publisher as 'unsold and destroyed,' and neither author nor publisher have received payment for this book."

The notice was meant to discourage booksellers and others parties from pulling books out of the trash and attempting to make an illegal profit, but the notice often was ignored and eventually was phased out. Today, big booksellers still send the covers back to their publishers and then often don't donate them because there's no monetary incentive and no tax credit available. Their loss has been claimed already. Smaller bookstores don't have the money to send the entire books back and don't have an incentive to find a willing charity.

On the last day Borders was in business, Esparza and a few fellow employees took down the fixtures, boxed up the remaining books and took one last look before locking the doors.

The fate of the books left behind — the ones that hadn't sold after rounds of 25, 50 and 75 percent-off sales — was left in the hands of liquidators and bulk-wholesale buyers who would eventually swing by. But as reported by Inhabitat and Huffington Post in 2010, Borders planned to throw the remainder of its literary merchandise away. Employees and advocates created Facebook pages urging Borders to donate its remaining stock ("Save the books!"), but, ultimately, they weren't successful.

On January 20, 2010, Borders posted a notice to employees on its server, Bookmark, that though its Waldenbooks stores would be working with donation organizations to collect unsold gift items, mass-market paperbacks would be destroyed. The notice then was posted on the Donate, Not Dumpster Facebook page by employees:

It is important for everyone to realize that the practice of stripping mass-market books and returning the covers for credit is an industry-wide practice and we won't be able to change this overnight," the notice reads. "It is also important to note that, if we were to return the mass-market books whole copy to the publishers, they would in turn pulp them, so we would have spent as much freight, and a much bigger carbon footprint sending tonnage across the country versus just covers. As for donating the books, even if we could do such a thing (which the publishers currently will not allow), how would we determine which books were suitable to be donated to which organization...I'm sure many of you have tried to donate books to libraries and schools and found that it is not an easy task. They very often simply don't want them — especially mass-market — due to content and/or condition.

"It was always odd to me that the system couldn't figure out a way to better handle the books that didn't sell," Esparza says. "But there we were, booksellers ripping the covers off mass-market paperbacks and tossing them in the trash."

"I have no doubt that we're throwing away more books than ever before," says Robert Spindler, an archivist and head of Archives and Special Collections at Arizona State University. "And as a result, libraries are now racing to scan what we've determined are endangered books and preserve the information."

To determine a book's "endangered" status, librarians use a database called WorldCat, which keeps track of what books are where and enables libraries to send the overflow to special storage (or the garbage can).

Guarded books are kept in rare-collection rooms and climate-controlled warehouses to slow their deterioration, says Spindler, in case the technology used to preserve them fails.

Book fans also use technology to find each other. They create book clubs, sell books online and find donation programs (or artists who can use them as supplies) to help prolong the lives of their well-loved printed materials.

Sloan says that even authors are paying more and more attention to technology and how readers are consuming their content. And though he'll always have a soft spot for bookstores, libraries and physical books, he also recognizes the permanent object's ultimate impermanence.

"Maybe we've become too precious with the book," he says. "It's a sad realization that no one wants them, but maybe it's healthy that in the end, most of them get destroyed," he says.

"I've come to think of a book on my shelf not as a trophy, but something on a to-do list."

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