Libraries stick with low-tech book sales

People can do a lot of things on the Internet these days, but not quite everything – which partly explains why libraries haven’t given up one of their cherished traditions, the used-book sale.

“People like to come in and touch the books . . . and there’s still that batch of people who like to smell a book,” said Carol Roberts, director of the public library in Wilton. “Does it smell musty? You can’t tell that with your computer.”

Even though the Internet has completely reshaped the business of selling books, both new and used, area libraries have found the old ways of getting rid of excess volumes remain the best.

Whether through a separate self-service store, as is done in the basement of Milford’s library; or through self-service shelves like those by the exits in Nashua; or through monthly sales in an annex, as is done in Hudson; or, most commonly, through annual sales at local festivals, the sale of donated or excess books for $1 or less is just about universal.

On rare occasions, libraries take the eBay route, as the Nashua Public Library did with a donation of old photography books, which fetched a whopping $700 from collectors. But that’s the exception, said library Director Joseph Dionne.

“I think it’s got to be something very unique (to be worth it),” he said. “You can’t just offer secondhand library books on eBay – you won’t get more than the 50 cents or a dollar that you get in your front lobby.”

But it isn’t just a lack of economic incentive that keeps libraries from the Internet route.

“Part of the reason that we do it is the joy that people get from buying a used book,” said Janet Argus, director of the Merrimack Public Library. “Our patrons enjoy it. We wouldn’t want to be doing it just to be out there making money – that’s not the main purpose.”

“They’re definitely part of the culture,” said Art Bryan, director of the Wadleigh Memorial Library in Milford. “People really like having a book sale.”

In fact, “like” may not be a strong enough word.

“The first day of the (annual) sale here, we have to synchronize the opening of the doors so people don’t get upset that people at a different entrance had the advantage,” said Carolyn Tremblay, reference librarian at Dover’s public library.

“There’s a wave of people tearing up the stairs. It’s nice to see people that excited about books,” she said.

Tremblay is in a particularly good position to talk about the advantages of the traditional sale, because Dover made the biggest foray into eBay sales of any New Hampshire library, starting in 2000.

“Back when we were in boom times, we could get some good prices and it was worth it then,” Tremblay said.

“But recently, the prices have fallen, and there have been some books with no bids at all, so we’ve stopped,” she said.

Checking back records, Tremblay noted a few sales of the sort that cash-strapped librarians dream of, such as an old copy of “Godey’s Ladies’ Book” that brought in $106. A series of posters from World War I and World War II also did well.

As such sales dwindled, however, it was hard to keep up the effort. And effort it is – the other main reason libraries avoid the eBay route.

“Even once you learn how to do it, there’s just a lot of steps,” Tremblay said.

Milford’s Bryan agrees.

“You’ve got to have somebody to do all the work of maintaining (the eBay account). . . . You’re got to input it and watch the account, then pack up (the book) and ship it. There’s a fair amount of overhead,” he said. “We don’t have the staff to support it.”

Used-book sellers, many of whom have abandoned storefronts and now operate solely online, can justify such overhead because of the level of their sales. But even big book sales seldom bring in more than $2,000 a year, which hardly makes a fiscal dent in places such as Merrimack, where the library operating budget tops $1 million.

As a result, the money usually goes to volunteer “friends of the library” groups, who use it for programs or special purchases.

“Every library I have ever known in the United States does book sales,” said Toni Weller, director of Hills Memorial Library in Hudson. “I’ve even been in hospitals where there are book carts in the lobby, because the library is selling old medical books.

“It’s just part of the culture.”