Who puts the books in the book book book-a shop?

(With apologies to Barry Mann)

Sarah Hoyt’s recent post on  The Day the Bookstores Died (no, not the actual title; I seem to be in a pop music mode this morning) got me thinking about my own issues with bookstores; specifically, used bookstores. I think (can’t prove) that one of the factors diminishing my enjoyment of used bookstores is, ironically, something that’s probably good for their bottom line: the ease of Internet research.

Half Price Books is the big dog of used bookstores in Austin and probably the only one I visited regularly in the last five or six years before my knees and back made standing and kneeling to browse the shelves a thing of the past, so I’m basing this on my experiences with them.

We buy too many books to begin with, and on top of that I used to get a ton of free and review copies, so staggering into Half Price with the ones that weren’t keepers was a regular experience, maybe three or four times a year. Once upon a time it was a pleasure outing, and the challenge was to leave with fewer books than I’d just dumped. Then, suddenly, it became less pleasurable, and I found it easy to take my money and run.

This change correlated with one I noticed behind the counter. Instead of unpacking the books, eyeballing them, and offering me a pittance for them, the clerk would now unpack the books and tell me to go away for half an hour or so. During that time, whenever I checked back, I could see a stack of the books I’d brought in beside the clerk, who was tapping away on a computer. Then they’d offer me the usual pittance.

I think that what they were doing was checking online prices for the books. Is this particular book a last year’s murder mystery with a resale value of 99 cents? Or is it an obscure treatise on hydrology that just so happens to be out of print and for which libraries or book collectors are willing to pay big bucks?

I further think that the books with large resale values went directly to the collectors and never showed up on Half Price’s shelves, because this change correlated with the one that diminished my browsing pleasure; suddenly it seemed that half their stock consisted of the kind of instant trash books that were published with the expectation they’d go directly to overstock sales, and the other half consisted of used copies of the last ten years’ bestsellers. Oh, there was still a handful of battered and much-loved books from somebody’s estate, but even those weren’t exciting finds.

It’s not that I was browsing in search of books to resell at a profit; as you may deduce from my habit of dumping the excess books on Half Price, I suck at selling books. (Even my own, but that is another story.) But much of my pleasure in browsing came from discovering obscure books that I thought would, some day, fit into research for a story – or that were fun to read in themselves. The enormous history and typology of horse-drawn carriages that I found on the top story of the old Half Price, back when it was a dusty book repository near downtown. The obscure Gene Stratton-Porter novel found at a Half Price in DC., one that had not been reprinted for years (possibly because of the casual racism in the story, which bothered me, but I could get past that). The history of cosmetics from the Elizabethan age to the First World War. The reproduction maps of Georgian London that I found in a corner of Foyle’s before they got all efficient, which they initially didn’t want to sell me because they couldn’t figure out how much to charge. The Kafirs of the Hindu Kush, which fell into my hands off the shelves of a bookstore in Charing Cross Road. The eighteenth-century Annual Register, pulled from a dusty stack of bound magazines in Hay-on-Wye, which I still treasure for the page on which it announces a general pardon for all felons except murderers, rapists, and people named MacGregor.

I don’t find books like that at Half Price any more, and I give the boxes of discards to my older daughter, who is willing to sell them for a price that allows her to pick up a couple of picture books for the kids. So… they’re still getting their books for resale, but they’ve lost a couple of avid if slightly insane customers. I expect they’re ok with that, but I miss the days of dusty book stacks and hidden treasures.

(Featured image via MaxPixel and licensed under Creative Commons 1.0.)


  1. The culprit is eBay. Suddenly the local bookstore didn’t have to rely on local buyers anymore, who might not trundle in looking for specialty books for several months, and may not want to pay what some collector-obscurata in Big City will pay, and meanwhile the book takes up space and roll around the end of the year, gets taxed as inventory to boot.

    Conversely, I can now find just about any obscure book at a moment’s notice, and an eBay seller in my price range. I don’t have to wait for ex-collector to dump their library and hope it happens in my town.

    But I agree it’s made the local usedbook bookstore (if any) an unfulfilling place to browse, and it’s not so easy to graze usedbooks online.

    1. It’s not just eBay. Amazon’s listings of out-of-print books constantly expand, and for years I’ve been using Bookfinder for more obscure titles. All useful to me as a reader/researcher… so I guess I shouldn’t grumble so much about how they’ve decimated bookstore shelves.

      1. eBay, and all the other outlets for used books, but eBay is still where most of the action is. Typically whatever is listed as an Amazon used book… is also listed on eBay for less money, often the same copy from the same vendor.

        And nowadays a few usedbook vendors (BetterWorld, Discover, Thrift) typically undercut all the small sellers, tho on the plus side (at least for my library), it does tend to keep prices sane for stuff that looks rare but really isn’t.

  2. The used book store I use to go to stopped paying for books, giving store credit instead. It went out of business a few years back and I have not found a new store. 😦

  3. Wait, you’re the one with the hydrology book?!? No fair!! I’ve been looking for that one for ages, and the expense-account academics and research libraries keep snarfing up any copy that appears. Grrrrrrrrrr. 😉

    I kid, but only a little. I managed to find a stolen copy of a rare book of western history on E-bay. Once I realized it was the missing book, I was honor bound to tell the library so they could start legal action (yes, it was that valuable at the time). Wish I’d just bid on it. *wry grin* I really needed that book, too, and ended up going to a different research library to take notes from their copy. ILL was not an option.

  4. And that’s why I go to thrift stores rather than used book stores these days. Better finds at lower prices, and the money usually goes to a good cause. Then I take the books I don’t want to keep to St. Vinny’s and browse for more books. I used to take them to the local used bookstore for a pittance in cash or a slightly larger pittance in credit, but then she’d jack the prices to way more than she gave for them. I get that she needs to make a profit and I’m all for that, but giving me 50c in credit for a book she turns around and sells for $3-$4? I’d rather eat the 50c and give the books to charity.

  5. Serendipity – that’s what used to great about used book stores. Just browsing around, finding, buying, and loving a book you’d NEVER search for online.

    My local HPB was a bit like that at first, about 20 years ago when it first opened, and while I do occasionally get the used book Eureka! moment, it’s been pretty rare for the last decade.

    I’ve had more luck at the local Friends of the Library book sale, finding hard covers of familiar classics (like the Wind in the Willows), and fun books like a great book on Chartres Cathedral. However, we already have so many books we don’t go every time (it’s 3x a year).

  6. There’s a used book on my list that shouldn’t be expensive or hard to find, but everyone who has a copy looks it up on amazon and ebay before listing it for sale, and thinks it’s worth a minimum of $64. Some of them start as high as $90. None of them get any bids, but th

    I’m sorry, but a 10-year-old, 100-page book on Japanese pickles is not worth more than about $15 to me, on a good day.


    1. Same happens for DVDs – I had to pay $50-100 per set for sets 5-7 of an 8-set collection of a TV show (the English subbed version of Maison Ikkoku by Rumiko Takahashi). The eBay speculators outbid anyone who puts up the sets for reasonable prices, and currently Set 8 is $350-500.

      Never mind that it’s out (or soon will be) on blu-ray for a fraction of that for the whole series.

      Similarly, The Rutger Hauer movie “Split Second” is around $100 on its rare DVD, but you can get a blu-ray from Germany for $20-25.

      I finally just grabbed a torrent of the Maison Ikkoku, bought new DVD software (my old stuff dated from the XP era and didn’t work after upgrading to Windows 10, plus I have a new machine anyway), and copied the final 12 episodes to DVD to complete the set for a fraction of the cost.

  7. Yeah, they are likely checking amazon or ABEbooks.it keeps things from happening like i did where i got a partial collection of older Cinefex issues for a reasonable price after getting to CA, including some of the rare issues (the really rare ones got picked out already) when the guy could have put them on ABEBook or Ebay and made 3 or 4x as much… Now I’m back here where i am the guy with all the obscure VFX/SFX tomes instead of knowing a dozen friends with them.

    1. Do you have a first edition of “Texturing and Modeling: A Procedural Approach”?

      1. Should add: in the 1996-1999 ish period I used to talk to Steve Worley fairly regularly on IRC.

        1. Cool. Worley’s cell noise is a brilliant concept, yet so easy to implement.

    2. Have you recommendations on places to start on that library for a newbie? Most of the advice I’ve gotten has been ‘you’ll figure it out. You don’t need a book.”

      1. If you have an iPad, Cinefex back issues are available through an app, Cinefex gives you a lot of ‘how things were done’ without discussing specific software techniques, but gives lots of stuff on practical effects.

        Home-ish techniques for doing SFX used to be covered in the old Cinemagic magazine (links to it here http://agraphafx.com/cinemagic-magazine-back-from-the-past/ )

        Books for software tend to be specific to software. I literally donated all my older Lightwave books except a choice few to the Salvation Army before i moved because they aren’t really applicable anymore.For instance, most of the Blender books are likely useful conceptually but after their recent heavy UI rewrite aren’t going to be helpful for ‘go here and do this’ stuff because it likely moved.

        (I have minimal use of Blender. I have more time in commercial software. I used to swear by Lightwave but am now working primarily in Modo)

        Generic VFX books are hard to write because at some point things become software specific. My ongoing youtube tutorial series that I have to start making new vids for shows how specific some things can get.

        Other things to do to find how shots go together is to look for shot breakdowns on Youtube, either in people’s demo reels or in the oscar/emmmy reels… for example, ILM’s youtube channel:


        (several other studios post them elsewhere)

        The point of a lot of those videos is showing you a single rendered shot is rarely done in camera – i.e. a single rendered pas- anymore. I wish there was a good multi-pass rendering tutorial somewhere to show off…

        1. Thanks! It’s definitely a start. I’m still very much on amateur software for 3D (poser with Luxrender via Reality, and Vue) I’m eyeing the Modo subscription through steam for modeling. I shall now have to figure out why Youtube is not sending notifications to my main e-mail. I’d followed your channel a while back, but not gotten notifications of posts. Book marking everything. Thanks again.

          1. I’ve got Modo on a subscription directly from them. Costs more, but its the full version, and modo render nodes are free. Modo’s renderer is CPU-based which avoids the ‘you have to be able to load it onto your GPU’ limitation, and uses the Optix noise reduction NVidia introduced, which does GPU-based AI noise reduction. If you’re using a renderfarm for animation, that has the disadvantage of everything needing a NVidia GPU. On the other hand, it saves massive render time…

            Haven’t been notified of recent posts cause there hasn’t been any. sorry

            1. I’m not up to a render farm yet. But I’ll definitely keep that in mind when I get there. I’ll also check out Modo’s direct subscription. 🙂

            2. I’m not up to a render farm yet. But I’ll definitely keep that in mind when I get there. And no worries. Gets me time to refresh my memory on what’s there while sitting in front of the computer with the actual software (that’s finally getting done!)

              1. however, when Modo does network rendering, it can split up a siongle frame as well, its just sometimes some of the tiles get errors and need to be re-rendered. its a weird bug.

  8. I think my last real online bargain was when I found someone selling a nearly-complete collection of Upper & Lower Case, the old typography magazine from ITC. $100 for decades of font-y goodness. Someone in Germany is trying to sell individual issues on ebay right now for $20 plus $32 shipping.


  9. I used to go to Half Price Books to unload the surplus and extraneous – but it seemed that they were giving less and less … to the point where it was hardly worth the effort, as least as far as books were concerned. The only items that seemed to give a good price were DVDs of movies and TV shows.

  10. I used to haunt the bookstore garbage for paperbacks with the covers torn off when things were tight as a young man. Used bookstores always had plenty of SFF for under a dollar too.

    Now I miss it. Days of my youth.

  11. We’re in a bookstore drought. The used bookstore went under several years ago, and the remaining dedicated book store in town is strictly religious. Various places have a book section (one has a modest collection of local history), but bargains aren’t to be found.

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