Library Book Sales

The Beatley branch of Alexandria (VA) Public Library system sells overflow, discarded, and donated books for 50 cents each. The ostensible purpose of such a low price is to increase the number of books that patrons own and read.

This seems like a great deal for those willing to sort through the junk (an embarrasing assortment of third-rate literature, self-help concoctions, and last decade's programming guides) to find a prize (like I have in Bruno Leoni's Freedom and the Law).

For most of the junk books sold, 50 cents appears to be the going market rate, or just a bit under it, as you can find used copies on Amazon and used bookstores for that price. The library--and everyone else-- are practically giving those books away. There is always a substantial inventory of this pulp, and a rather large turnover. The market in junk books is efficient; economists will sleep soundly.

But for almost all of the good books, 50 cents is way too low to achieve the desired aim of wide readership. In fact, at this price, selling a limited number of good books to interested readers seems to be almost impossible.

The actual result of such a low price is to make it so that expensive books (which are usually the good ones) are almost always out of stock. The price ceiling has created a class of middlemen-speculators who sort through the for-sale shelves, and purchase anything worth more than a few dollars. (I have talked with several of these speculators, and they uniformly won't buy books that they can't sell for less than $3-$4--as the transactions cost of packing & shipping are too high). If they think something is valuable, but don't know its market price, they use the library computers to check Amazon.

Hence, it is mostly the trash that could be picked up cheaply elsewhere that winds up in the hands of regular library patrons. As I wrote above, occassionally I have found books that the speculators didn't realize were valuable, or perhaps I beat them to it, since I arrive just when the library opens.

Frankly, I'm disappointed that Alexandria library is giving a living to unknown persons, instead of selling its books at market rates online. By selling its books, I think it could make enough money to purchase and maintain a wi-fi network, or to buy better books. (I grant that this assumes competency in identifying and selling expensive books, but we're talking about library personnel, who presumably specialize in books).

If the library wants to be a charitable organization that gives valuable books to the needy at a discount, then it should find ways to actually perform this service, instead giving retired persons a means to profit at taxpayer loss.


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This page contains a single entry by Kevin published on August 28, 2004 9:57 AM.

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