If books are so great, why is it so hard to give them away?

Books are great individually. But in big bunches, they’re not as sacred as they once were.

I’m in the process of moving and I have a lot of books. I’ve been collecting science fiction books since I was a teenager — I’ve accumulated hundreds of hardbacks and hundreds more in paperback, with special bookcases to hold them. I also love nonfiction — I’ve got lots more books on science, history, politics, and religion. And I’ve got two or three hundred more business books, both books that impressed me and books I helped to create. My wife asked me to consider whether I wanted to move all those books. Well, not all of them, I thought. So I picked out a 250 or so to give away.

I’ve read more than half of the books in my collection. But I’m attached to both the ones I have read and the ones I haven’t yet. They just sat on the shelf, mostly organized neatly, until I had to think about moving them.

Used bookstores aren’t what they once were

My first thought was to donate to used bookstores. I used to haunt them when I was younger. I loved Book Swap in State College, where I spent my undergraduate years. The Book Den East in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, is full of obscure finds and set up charmingly in old barn. And I spent many hours in the late lamented Avenue Victor Hugo bookstore on Newbury Street in Boston. Just the smell of old books can take me back. I’d peruse the shelves looking for books I’d missed by Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Robert Silverberg, or Fred Pohl. There was a frequent turnover in odd editions, like books that had originally been published in the UK and then made it over to some used bookstore in the US. (The Avenue Victor Hugo shuttered for 15 years, then reopened in Lee, New Hampshire, far away from me.)

Used bookstores have changed. A used bookstore I used to frequent in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass. closed a decade ago. On the day it closed, there was a huge shipping container parked out front, filled to the brim with the most amazing variety of old books. People had climbed to the top and were bathing themselves in the sea of books. It somehow shocked me to see all the knowledge and effort that had gone into those books just tossed out.

That wasn’t an anomaly, it was the start of a trend. Sure, there are still rare bookstores. And of course, and there are still used bookstores, but the used bookstores I visited recently were only interested in recent books by popular authors, and certainly had no interest in business or nonfiction books. I understand why they have no interest in old textbooks and travel guides, but they’re not interested in fiction more than five years old unless it’s by a name like Stephen King, and they’re pretty much resistant to nonfiction that wasn’t a recent bestseller. On a recent visit, a proprietor looked at my whole haul, picked out one book, and rejected three dozen others.

Prisons would like your books, but no hardbacks, please

Having watched prison shows like “Orange is the New Black,” I got the bright idea that my business books could help some people in prison to get smarter while they’re there — or at least to entertain themselves.

But the local prison book donation program is accepting paperbacks only — leading me to assume that there must be some danger of the prisoners attacking each other with hardback books, or smuggling contraband inside of them. Since nearly all my books to donate are hardback, the prison won’t take them.

Libraries will take your books, if you’re willing to do the legwork

It seemed to me that a lot of my used books (and DVDs, too), could take on a new life at a library. So I set out to donate.

The library in my town of Arlington, Massachusetts was willing to accept one paper bag a week. (I sneakily stretched that two two boxes a week, hoping the librarians wouldn’t recognize me). As with many local libraries, a “friends of the library” volunteer group takes charge of the used books. The donations get divided into books that go into the library’s collection — just a few, from what I observed — books that go into the friends’ used book sale, and books that they send off to some bulk used book distributor somewhere.

Given the limits of what my local library would take, I made the rounds of other towns nearby. In what may be a COVID-related policy, Boston’s huge public library is not currently accepting donations? Cambridge, the diverse city across the river that’s filled with universities, only wants recent bestsellers. I managed to stuff some boxes of books into donation carts in the libraries in Lexington and Watertown. Malden, a diverse community a few miles down the road, had a library that wasn’t open on Saturday when I dropped by. And the librarian at Winchester said they didn’t take donations.

My biggest problem is books I helped write. I have dozens of copies of Groundswell (still used as a textbook in some universities), Empowered (with the imprimatur of Harvard Business Press), The Mobile Mind Shift, Marketing to the Empowered Consumer, and The Age of Intent (on the popular topic of artificial intelligence). But I can’t give multiple copies of each book to the same library, so I’m forced to go far and wide to pollinate single copies of these books to libraries that will take them. I have to admit to a tiny bit of satisfaction when, on my second visit to my hometown library, I saw Groundswell and Empowered on the shelf of the friends-of-the-library book sale. Somebody thinks they’re worth sharing!

A sobering reality for authors

I work closely with authors. All the authors I work with were committed to creating quality work, and spent many hours assembling it and responding to my edits. And they paid me to help them.

Those books may very well be accomplishing their goals in various ways, for examples as giveaways at conferences and events. They’ve burnished the reputation of the authors.

There is still something special about a hardback book, crammed with insight from someone who was willing to share what they know. And as much as you may love audiobooks or ebooks, it’s the hardbacks that remain the most accessible way to get value from that knowledge. You may believe audiobooks and ebooks are the future. But books on paper are still the present — and they’re still something special to me.

As I watch the movers hoisting my beloved books onto the truck — just another heavy box, from their perspective — I have to ask myself what’s become of all that crystallized knowledge, with a value so questionable that used bookstores, libraries, and prisons don’t really want it.

Books are sacred to me. I still revere what goes into them, and savor what they deliver. I still have my own library, and each book reminds me of when I bought it, where I read it, what I learned from it, and in lots of cases, how I contributed to it.

That may make me a dying breed. But I’m not ready to toss them in the big shipping container it would probably take to hold them if I no longer wanted them.

I’ve considered visiting bookstores and sneaking my books onto their shelves. I wonder what would happen if they caught me? What’s the opposite of shoplifting — book dropping?

I’ll keep trying to place the extras. Because then somebody, somewhere can learn from what the authors poured into those books, and that’s a goal worth believing in.

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  1. Consider placing some in Little Free Libraries in your area. I know you can’t likely put too many in any one LFL, but it’s one way to get the books into the hands of people who might not otherwise see them.

  2. If you are willing to donate to the Friends of the Nashua Public Library, then we will accept anything except textbooks, encyclopedias, and magazines. We have lots of people donate to us from Massachusetts and all over because we have a garage and accept truckloads at a time. We have used book sale owners come in on a regular basis to cherry-pick what they want from us. We also supply about 25 Little Free Libraries with books. Volunteers spend about 25 hours a week sorting the books into our collection. We would love anything you have to offer.

  3. Hi Josh – ha, well, we’ve swum in similar circles. My instant thought from the teaser blurb for this post was that you try the Avenue Victor Hugo, and then I recalled they were gone.

    I’d thought they shut down entirely – great to see they’re up in New Hampshire, even though that doesn’t do me much good either, being South of Boston.

    Damn shame they left Newbury Street, I spent a LOT of time in that location when I was at Berklee. It was a bit of an oasis from all of the high-end fashion stores the world so desperately needs more of (apparently)!

    I’ve resigned to mostly throwing out books that are no longer useful or important to me.

    Pre-pandemic, I’d donated 30-40 large boxes of mostly non-fiction books to my local library. I’d be willing to bet that most of those ended up in the trash or (maybe) sold-off. Now, they have no interest, partly due to the lack of volunteers to sort through it all as well as COVID precautions.

    If you find a solution, I’d love to hear about it.

  4. Perhaps high school libraries would welcome classic science fiction or popular-level science and business nonfiction. Some larger libraries have programs and services specifically for small business/entrepreneurship, or maybe your local SBA office might be interested in still-relevant business titles.

  5. PS: I’m hoping to move soon and also want to cull some of my books. Fortunately, in my area (Brooklyn) it’s common to just put books out front for taking, and we have several Little Free Libraries in the neighborhood.

  6. Check out http://www.BetterWorldBooks.com

    They have drop boxes, or if you’re willing to pay, books can be shipped. They collect, sell and donate new and used books online, and each sale generates funds for literacy and educational initiatives in the US, the UK and around the world.

  7. I feel your pain! We moved from a 9-room house in the US to a 3-room flat in Berlin and we’d been acquiring books for 45 years. These days, most of my books are on Kindle, especially since it’s easier to get books in English. Also be aware that if you donate books to Goodwill, they have a policy where they throw away books that were published before a certain date. A friend watched as they threw his collection of Shakespeare into the dumpster. In Germany, we also have a custom where folks put out useful things that they no longer want in box on the sidewalk, or in the lobby of their apt. buildings, witih a note telling people they can take them. Community centers might also welcome you books.