There was a really interesting article in Slate this week. In it a used bookseller explains how he uses a barcode scanner to assess the value of books, and how he really doesn’t feel very good about it despite making a decent living.
I've had just one confrontation while doing my job, with an elderly man in a suburb. We were in the library's book-sale room when I overheard him telling his friend that the two of them were surrounded by a-------—that is, the people scanning. "It's a business," I said, but I felt all locked up and couldn't bear to turn and say it to his face. "This is a library!" he spat. "You don't work here—you don't work at the library!" He told me that he had 10,000 books in his house, and that he'd read them all. A dozen other people kept scanning silently. Later on, in the parking lot, I got some empathy from my comrades, but they quickly started to speak about their work with the same hunching defensiveness I had put on with my challenger.
The bibliophile bookseller, and the various other species of pickers and flippers of secondhand merchandise, would never be reproached like this and could never be made to feel bad in this way. Record geeks are, obviously, crazy music fans. The dealer in used designer clothes or antique housewares, when he considers a piece, can evaluate its craftsmanship and beauty with the same gaze he uses to appraise it. But the aesthetic value of a book—its literary merit—doesn't have anything to do with its physical condition.
It's very interesting to me to see how the business of culture plays out. If someone were selling bags of potatoes, digital PDAs, or blank t-shirts and was using a scanner to determine the going price for each item no one would pay them any attention but because that is just how business is run. But anything that could have cultural significance seems to be subject to a different set of rules.
For many years I was quite involved in my cities local music scene, I helped put together concerts and got to know many local promoters. There seemed to be this feeling that when someone got particularly successful or only operated in genres which were widely popular they were somehow evil or were stealing from the community in some way. It was almost as if a promoter would use a loss as a badge of honour, or a way to say "see I still care about the music too."
Are books a commodity like a sack of potatoes or are books a culturally valuable vessel worth more than the sum of their parts? The answer is that it is both. The kind of books which this seller is offering would have no place on the shelves of an ILAB bookstore, and the volume seller wouldn’t have the time to properly describe a rare out-of-print cookbook so that an enthusiast would find use in the listing. Broad based margin sellers and niche specialists can both survive. Both serve a purpose and we shouldn’t look down at either of them.