DUMPSTER-DIVING FOR BOOKS

A man that Christine dubbed “TechMan” has been bringing us geology books and abstracts for six months.  The first time he carried two boxes in, he said, “I don’t know if you are interested in any stuff like this, but I thought I’d give it a try.  They didn’t cost me anything, for when I saw them being tossed into dumpsters behind the geology department over at Ohio State, I went to investigate and found these things.”

He had learned that several university departments are converting their libraries from hardcopy to online access for budgetary and space reasons.  With the paper copies expendable, the acadacks are simply tossing them.

TechMan left them with us to run some errands, expecting little for his effort, but wanting to make sure that something monetarily valuable was not dump-destined.  I researched a number of pre-1950 Ohio Geological Survey books, and unusual pamphlet-sized monographs, enjoying the weirdness of detailed titles: “Calymenid and Other Ordovician Trilobites from Kentucky and Ohio”, “Bioenvironmental Features of the Ogotoruk Creek Area of Cape Thompson Alaska”, and the much more accessible and salable “Classification Delineation and Measurement of Nonparallel Folds.”

Upon his return, the trash connoisseur asked – without much hope, “Did you want any of them?  Was it worth diving into those dumpsters, or should I have left them there?”

“That depends on how much value you put on your dumpster-diving time,” I responded.  Would $65 make it worth your while?”

“Are you kidding?!  For $65 I’ll pitch a tent next to the dumpsters!” he crowed.

With that kind of financial encouragement, he returned several times this spring and summer, always with low expectations, and occasionally the material wasn’t worth much.  On the last few visits he said, “If I get just $5 or $10 for this batch I’ll be satisfied,” and I’d pay him what he wanted.  There are a lot of thin abstracts in a stack, and rather than research each one, I felt it was just as easy to pay him his lowball price, and set them aside for later attention.  After all, the unusual nature of these titles excluded them from the likelihood of anyone wanting them before I priced them.  Eventually we acquired five boxes of TechMan’s offerings – now stacked in the basement, labeled and partially price-researched.

Why buy such low-demand stock?  I’ve learned from experience to buy unusual material when it’s offered, if the price is low enough to justify the storage space it requires, as well as the research time needed to price it.  Eventually, I trust, someone will be interested, and the investment will pay off.

TechMan – an entomologist at OSU whose real name is Tim – and I talked about the craziness of OSU simply tossing these things away.  If they are of no further use to scholarship – and I’d seriously question that, then their commercial value should be investigated before pitching them into the trash with floor sweepings and wastebasket garbage.  At the very least, it all should have been offered to the Friends of the OSU Library organization to be sold at their semi-annual sales.  University property should not be de-accessioned into a dumpster unless it has been determined to have no commercial value.

So the money TechMan pocketed and that we would (eventually) make on these items should have should have found its way into The Friends of the Ohio State Library’s accounts in order to help the university library with programming and equipment, especially in these troubled times for the state of Ohio, when higher-education budgets have been slashed.

We’ve seen only what TechMan was able to retrieve, and he freely admits going weeks between opportunities to go back and dive for other material.  If this one department was an indication of university-wide de-accessioning by direct-depositing unwanted library titles into behind-the-building receptacles, then we might assume that campus-wide, much more professionally desirable and commercially-viable material truly became landfill.

How much was our new basement stock worth?  Read on.

Several weeks ago, about five minutes before our 7pm closing, a slender man with a well-trimmed beard slipped in the side door and disappeared back into the Natural History corner.  I wanted to say something to him about closing soon, but decided instead to start pre-closing activities and let him browse contentedly.

Walking back to the office, I saw him looking at the Geology section, and made a mental note to ask if he needed help when I returned to the sales floor, after shutting down the office computer and gathering some work to take home.

On the way back out, I inquired as to his needs.

“Oh, I’m looking for a needle in the haystack.”

And before I could ask what the book-needle was, he asked, “Has Karen Wickliff closed down her bookshop?”

Since Karen moved a couple of miles north on High Street last winter, we’ve had this question come up occasionally.  I explained where she now was, and he continued.

“I found a book called “The Geology of Water in Ohio” on a visit there a while ago, and I knew I should have bought it then, but when I went back to get it recently, her store was gone.”

While my mind raced to consider the possibility of us having bought it in TechMan’s multi-box buy of geology books this past summer, I explained about Wickliff’s move.

He nodded with understanding, and repeated that he should have bought it when he had the chance, which is a song we hear frequently.  “I know that it’s unlikely that I’ll ever find it again,” he said sadly.

I thought that a trip downstairs to look through the five boxes of the geology books might be worthwhile, so I told him, “I’m going to check in the back to see if against all odds we might have a copy.  Maybe there’s still some magic at Acorn at the end of a long day.”

He smiled in appreciation, but with a look that expressed his disbelief in our bookmagic.

Oh, ye of little faith…

Downstairs, near the loud dehumidifier, stacked on a pallet to protect boxed books from any Ohio water that might come in, I found “The Geology of Water in Ohio” by the Ohio Geological Survey in only the second box down.  Yes!

Back upstairs, Christine had brought the two Clearance carts in from the front and side doors, getting ready to close.  Geology man was standing near the front counter, ready to leave after I brought up bad news rather than his book.

I knew this was going to be fun.

As I came out of the stockroom and into his sight, I held up the $35 1942 book and casually asked, “Is this what you were looking for?”, handing it to him.

His face lit up like a kid’s on Christmas morning when he’s just been given the bike he was longing for.

“Yes!!!  Oh, yes!!!”  And looking from the book to me – the Magic Man, he gushed, “If I weren’t such a geek, I’d burst into tears!”

So $35 isn’t that big a deal, right?  Certainly not worth the school’s effort to preserve it for future use/sale.

However, after online-researching a few of those titles, I had realized that there was national respect for a lot of this stuff, so I priced our stock competitively.

While GeekMan was here for the scenario above, I mentioned that we had several boxes of related titles in the back, and if he had the time on his next visit, he was welcome to browse through it.

He came in three weeks later, trailed by his two kids in their early teens.  I was in the back and on my way to the counter with some books for Christine to shelve, I noticed him in front of the Geology section.

Unfortunately, having helped him just once, I mistook him for someone else, which leads us to a small digression, which does come back to GeekMan, and adds flavor to this bookstore-y.

One of our business neighbors in our small strip plaza is Weidinger Jewelers, owned by Bill Weidinger, an interesting character and a good friend. He’s an Acorn customer, collecting Peter Matthiewson and John McPhee.

When I was at Karen Wickliff’s bookshop earlier in the day that GeekMan returned, I spied two Matthiessens for a price that I thought I could double to Bill.  Christine put bookcovers over the dust jackets; I marked the price up, and noted that they were both first editions.  I took them over to Bill’s shop, stepping past the painters who were giving a fresh look to the building, around their equipment, and under their scaffolding.

On July 4th, Bill and his wife were broadsided while driving their small Mercedes sportster, and he’s been goofier than ever since then.  I wasn’t sure if he’d even remember that he was collecting Matthiessen, but he seemed alert, and happily paid $30 for the books.  “This is a great birthday present!” he said.

Standing over the well-lit cases of expensive jewelry that Bill designs and crafts, we talked about how the building painting was going before I left.  Bill’s very critical of every detail of the appearance of the plaza, and known to the landlord’s office as the biggest critic among us tenants.

Instead of going back to Acorn, I popped in next door to the French Loaf.

“It’s Bill’s birthday, and I want to get him a small treat,” I told Greg, co-owner of the bakery.  He’s slim and gray-bearded and front-of-store friendly.  I get the feeling that his staff doesn’t see him the way the public does.  He did give me some cookies to add to the cake for Bill.

Weidinger was closed by then, but through the glass door his wife Annabelle saw me carrying the distinctive French Loaf box, and smilingly summoned birthday-boy to the door, where I handed him the cake and sang the birthday song, much to his amusement and appreciation.

Back in the bookstore, I moved some paperwork around my desk, and was coming out to the front counter when I saw GeekMan in Geology.  Mistaking him for Greg from the French Loaf, I told him that I’d sung “Happy Birthday” to Bill and he’d appreciated both of our pastry treats.

GeekMan looked at me a bit confused, and politely said, “I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else…”

As he began to tell me who he was, I overspoke him and said, “You’re the geology guy who said that if you weren’t such a geek, you’d break into tears.”  He laughed and confirmed his identity unique to our shop. I shook his hand as we formally introduced ourselves to avoid further confusion on my part.  He told me that he was a freelance geologist, hired around the state to do investigations for possible polutions and also to examine land before businesses or institutions created a new use for it.

That’s when he reminded me of my suggestion that he examine the books in the basement.  While his kids browsed quietly in a very well-behaved way upstairs, GeekMan and I went underground.  His face lit up as he removed the lid from the top box, and I left him to dig strata by strata through the geology books, advising him that as most of the material wasn’t priced, I could do that when he brought up the things he chose.

Upon retuning to the surface, carrying a foot high stack of books, I asked how he’d enjoyed his dig.

“I can’t describe in polite language,” he said, nodding at his children gathered behind him, “the thrill of looking through those books down there, so I better keep my mouth shut!  And I only looked at a few things, so I’ll be back for more.”

I took his armload of university rejects to price-research as he talked more with us.

“I’m going to keep some of this,” gesturing at the books which I found had already been priced, at $50, $30, $50, $8.50, and so on.  “But I’ll donate a lot of it to OSU, where I served a seven-year sentence.”

Christine and I shared a quick glance of incredulity, knowing the source of these expensive OSU-bound books.

He continued with enthusiasm – pointing to the treasures from his dig, “The information in these is invaluable.  Nothing is being published anymore which contains the data in here that I and other geologists have to have in order to do our jobs professionally.  I can’t believe you have them for me!  Where did you get them?”

“From someone who didn’t need them anymore,” I replied evasively.

GeekMan held up one $75 book and informed us,”This 1910 book on the geology of the Columbus quadrangle has important information, because the landscape is being changed so much these days that it’s hard to know what the original landscape was, and where it was, and it’s important in dealing with chemical spills and other geologically-related situations to be able to pinpoint the original landscape.”

“Did you see that some of these books are $50?” asked Christine, not wanting him to be sticker-shocked at the total.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, “this stuff is critical for my work.”

The total for this one stack of discarded and dumpstered university material was $425, over double what we’d paid for all of the accumulated boxes from TechMan, and yet a bargain at our retail price compared to our national colleagues.

And now some of it was going to be returned to the university as a thoughtful donation from a successful alumna who desired that OSU have unique geological reference material in its researchable archives.

From OSU’s Geology department’s library, to a dumpster, to TechMan, to the Acorn Bookshop, to GeekMan, and back to OSU, with everyone involved feeling good about their part in the cycle.

Indeed, “What goes round comes round,” including books.

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