Because the economy’s so lousy, Katja’s has been spending her leisure time boxing up books from our den and cashing them in at the local Half-Price Books. It’s sort of exciting to get thirty or forty dollars from a stack of books that we’ll never look at again (just so long as one doesn’t think about paying five or six hundred dollars for the originals). Recently, because our bookshelves were starting to look pretty thinned out, she asked our son J if she might sell his college books that he’s stored in our attic for twenty years. J was fine with that and didn’t even ask for a cut.
Katja enlisted my help on a recent Saturday. Our attic is so unbelievably crowded that it took a quite a bit of work just to get to the boxes of books stacked against the back wall. Katja handed the boxes to me, one by one, and I lugged them down to the porch. Pretty soon we had a pile of ten or so boxes. We discovered, as we opened them, that most were accompanied by little piles of mouse droppings. So we worked together on the porch, me wiping each book off with a damp towel and Katja repacking the boxes for transport.
The task had some nostalgia to it. J, who has clearly inherited a tendency to be an obsessive collector, had accumulated the books during his years at Columbia, and they offered a broad survey of the ancient and modern world. Shakespeare, Rabelais, Descarte, Plato, Montaigne, Faulkner, O’Neill, Chaucer, Thurber, Thoreau, Freud, Salinger, and on and on. History, fiction, poetry, politics, language, science, religion, sociology. If one mastered all of it, one could be a potential candidate for a Nobel prize.
Despite the wealth of intellectual riches, I suggested to Katja that we probably wouldn’t get a lot of cash. The books were old, some were tattered or yellowing, and, in general, they weren’t best sellers on the mass market. Plus we tossed out all the ones that the mice had chewed upon. Nonetheless, we set off and parked near Half-Price’s back door, where an employee brought out a cart to help us lug them in.
Katja went to the paperback mystery section while her appraisal was being done, and I skimmed the $1 clearance shelf. Finally they called for “Kate”. I was paying for a few items at the cash register. When Katja joined me, I asked how much she’d gotten. “Take a guess,” she said. Given 200 or so books, I made what I thought to be a very conservative estimate of $31. She shook her head. “More?” I asked naively, and she shook her head again. “Twenty dollars?” I asked. She still shook her head. “How much?” I finally asked. “Ten dollars,” she replied.
I muttered to myself all the way out to the car. Ten dollars for an entire library of classics. What has our society come to? We got a nickel apiece for the greatest works in Western Civilization. If you factor in the gasoline our SUV consumed on the trip, it was four cents. Of if you calculate our labor at a rate of one dollar per person-hour, it came to two cents per book. 200 pages of Ernest Hemingway for two cents?
We drove in silence over to Tri-County mall where I was replacing my broken watchband. On the way out, we bought a large cup of coffee to share from Starbucks with $1.95 of our Half-Price proceeds. After taking a sip, I said, “This is a really good cup of coffee.” I thought to myself, “We can get five cups of Starbucks coffee from our ten dollars, and we will still have a quarter left over.” Hmm. Maybe it wasn’t that bad a deal after all.