Kate and I were talking about some of the ways I’ve taken a small rural library in a town that’s closer to hardscrabble than most and made it busy and well-respected throughout the state. “You should write more about that stuff,” she said. So, at the risk of beating a deceased equine past viable function, I’ll share more history of how I came to be known as the Radar O’Reily of the Maine library world.
Let’s hop in the wayback machine and head to the mid to late 1950s. Kate was six or seven and I was a year older. Our father would tell us to get into the truck or sit on the tailgate (things like child safety were a lot looser in those days). We’d head up the road toward Appleton and whenever we spotted a returnable in the ditch, one of us would alert Dad and he’d stop while we retrieved it. When ‘ditch mining’ was really good (usually right after the snow melted), we’d end up with a decent haul and we’d stop at the little store in Appleton where Dad would buy beer and we’d split the proceeds from our finds. When we got a little older and had our own bikes, we’d ride off, hunting on our own.
That activity, which netted us real cash money, left an indelible mark on my personality. When our daughters Sara and Lisa were about the same age, we started our own ditch mining routine, generally after the snow melt. Over a period of several years, we found enough returnables so the money, along with any rebate checks from stuff we sent in after buying products, went into mutual funds for the girls. By the time Sara was ready for college, her share, coupled with what we could afford to spend, meant that she was able to graduate with no college debt. We couldn’t do quite as well for Lisa (she went to graduate school as well as getting her B.A.), but within a year of her getting her first masters degree, she, too was debt free.
After the kids were in high school, I continued to stop and pick up returnables whenever I wasn’t in a hurry. A couple times I found things that were a heck of a lot more valuable than a five cent deposit. Once in Coopers Mills, I found a V8 can with an entry form on the reverse side of the label. I filled it out, sent it in and a month later, got a check for $1,000. Several years later, while picking cans from the roadside at Sennebec Hill Farm, I spotted a bag with a plastic needle inside. It was attached to a note that said: “Congratulations, you have found a needle placed here by a representative of Birds and Blooms Magazine. We have placed 50 of them around the U.S. to see how many are picked up by people who care about the appearance of their community. Mail it in and you will be rewarded.” This time, I received a check for $50.00. In essence, the whole look for and grab returnables business was, for me, classic Pavlovian conditioning. Heck, I still stop every now and then and grab a few if time permits. Until the redemption center here in Hartland closed, I bought their Coke caps and the money we would have gotten for our returnables went to help support the town swimming pool.
When I discovered computers (the first was a Commodore 64), the thing that hooked me and made me want to get under the hood, were role playing games-RPGs. Between 1982 and 2005, I owned and probably played every RPG that came out. I loved the ability to get so immersed in a game that I forgot where I was, who I was and what time it was. I called in sick more often to waste 12 hours getting into a new game than because I was really ill. Some games stood out like the Might and Magic series, The Bards Tale, Ultima Underworld 1&2, The Elder Scrolls series and the original Diablo (I played that one all the way through 9 times) to mention a few. Two aspects of the genre totally hooked me. I liked fighting monsters, but I liked checking treasure chests after I vanquished them a lot more. I never knew whether they were going to contain an Awesome Ring of Dude Invincibility or the ubiquitous Fizbin of Misfortune. It was the moment of AHA when the lid swung back that was so addictive.
When I was running the adult education program at the old state hospital in Augusta, I met the late Walter Taranko. He hated to see resources go to waste, so whenever a school or library got rid of books, he’d find a way to get them to Augusta and store them in the warehouse used by the Maine State Library. He gave me carte blanche to roam through his treasures and take anything I thought might be useful as a library for patients in our education program. The result was twofold. First, our students had a new and oft-used resource and second, I found that I liked the concept of keeping stuff out of the trash stream.
When I took over as the librarian there, I soon realized that there was a national network online that was dedicated to sharing unwanted issues of medical and psychiatric journals in return for postage reimbursement. I was able to convince the administration that getting in on this was a great and very cost-effective way to expand our professional journal collection. In a matter of a couple years, we had the best such collection north of Boston. Twice I took my truck to libraries that were closing or downsizing and returned with full loads. One came from MacLean Hospital in Belmont, MA., the other culminated in my rescue of the mental retardation periodicals at Pineland that were headed for the trash until I raised hell and finally got the higher-ups in the Dept. of Mental Health to let me assimilate them into my holdings. This obsession paid off nicely because it didn’t take long for big medical facilities all over the US and Canada to recognize that I was happy to lend and borrow on a reciprocal basis through the National Library of Medicine’s interlibrary lending software known as DOCLINE. They got access to rare psychiatric journals and our medical staff got access to cutting edge medical journal articles quickly and at no cost.
I discovered a new variation of real world Might & Magic when I became the director at the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library after leaving AMHI. The Friends of the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library ran a used bookstore in the building next to the library and generated a really amazing amount of money each year. Books were frequently dropped off at the library when the book store was closed and I got in the habit of triaging them and pulling anything I thought was worth adding to the collection. In addition, I pulled ones in better shape than the copies in circulation. We ended up replacing about 200 of ours with better copies each year. There were other, unexpected bonuses that came with triaging books. I’d find unused postcards from all over the world as well as money that had been used as bookmarks.
As time went on, I started contacting some of the people who brought in books, thanking them personally and telling them a bit about how their donated stuff was being used. I ended up referring to this as ‘selling the donation’ and people really liked it. Most of the time when we donate something, the best we get is an acknowledgment and/or a thank you, but we don’t really know what effect the item or the money really has. I discovered that people really get excited when they find out you added a book they gave you because you knew a specific patron who would be excited to read it, or that three of the Janet Evanovich hardcovers they dropped off replaced ones that were falling apart because they were so popular. I frequently highlighted specific donations we got in my weekly library column in the Boothbay Register. These weekly snapshots of what was going on at the library were quite popular and resulted in an increase in donations as well as bringing in new patrons. In the process, I discovered another interesting fact. People new to an area learn a lot about it from reading what goes into the local news. I had many people tell me that they felt more comfortable coming to the library and getting a card because of what they read in my column.
When I moved on to the Maine State Library in 2002, awareness of my interest in maximizing the value and lifespan of unwanted stuff had grown via things I had shared on the Maine Library Listserv MELIBS-L. Even though I wasn’t part of a public library with a direct venue to use unwanted stuff, I still got calls and emails asking if I wanted such and such. Some items, like 30 year old encyclopedias, were easy to decline. Others, like psychiatric reference books and signed copies of books by Maine authors, were impossible to refuse and I started selling a few items on Half.com. I was shocked at how much some of them sold for.
I was on the board of trustees at the Hartland Public Library when Kerry Baldwin, an energetic librarian in her first professional position decided to move home to Colorado. Everyone on the board had the same initial thought. We hired someone who could turn the library around, she’s been doing a great job, so what do we do now? I went home and started thinking about making one more career change. It was a pretty big pay cut, but instead of being on the road by 7 am every morning and driving 5-700 miles a week, I’d go to work at ten and drive three blocks. Another huge plus was the freedom of being my own boss as a one person operation.
One of my first projects was weeding aggressively. There was a lot of stuff on the shelves that hadn’t been checked out for 15 years or more. Because Kerry had asked me to help her get the collection into the statewide system, seeing which books weren’t unique to Hartland was easy. Because of my work at the Maine State Library I knew that with Hartland participating in the statewide van delivery, we could justify getting rid of a lot more items because we still had access to them in a short time frame through interlibrary loan. Once the shelves started looking uncrowded, people began borrowing more, in part because the library looked different, but also because they no longer needed a crowbar to get a book off the shelf.
It was around this time that I discovered www.bookmooch.com, an online book swapping site that had members all over the world. I listed several hundred of the weeded books and in short order, was sending them to people as eager to get them as I was to get rid of them. The concept was simple. Scan in the ISBN or type in the title, add notes regarding the condition and save the listing. You got 1/10th of a point for each book listed, a point for each one sent in the US and three points for any sent to another country. In the eight years since I started participating, I have given or received 7230 books. Almost every one I’ve received has been added to the library collection. A year or so later, I discovered another swapping site called www.paperbackswap.com This one is only for US residents, but also allows members to swap for audio books on CD. Despite the title, both hardcover and paperback books are listed. It also allows members to create special searches and save them for regular use. I have four that I run almost every day: Orca and Flux look for YA books published by these two firms, an audio one searches for unabridged audios on CD and Teen searches for young adult books that have been published since 2010. Once again, I’ve swapped several thousand books and audio books here, most of which have been added to the collection. In the process, I’ve made friends with a dozen or so swappers who have been giving me deals and extras because they know these freebies will go into our collection, and by proxy into the statewide system so almost anyone in the state can enjoy them.
It was through PaperbackSwap that I first started getting audio books in MP3 format on CD. We now have arguably the largest collection of them in Maine. If you’re unfamiliar with them, they’re audio books on disc that use the same encoding that Itunes uses for music. They have two advantages. One, they can easily be ripped to an iPod or similar device so you can listen to them anywhere and, two, they have a very large capacity, so most of them hold an entire book on one or two discs. There is one small downside, though. Because almost no libraries have them in their collection at this time, I end up having to create a new bibliographic record for most of them. It’s a time consuming process, but is good payback for all the records others have created that I can grab and use in less than a minute.
Last year, PaperbackSwap expanded and opened up two sister sites, SwapaCD (http://www.swapacd.com) and SwapaDVD (http://www.swapadvd.com/home.php). Both charge a nominal handling fee for each trade. I’ve used both to get and give CDs and DVDs. In fact, we have added close to a dozen full seasons of obscure TV series to the library collection this way.
All of these experiences culminated in my realizing that for a one person library, there had to be a better way to turn donations and weeded items into something better. I tried a book sale in the first year I was here, but we barely broke the $100 level and it tied up several people for almost a full day. The catalyst for getting serious with selling online was when a nearby library posted all their weeded items as freebies on Melibs-L. After a week, the list was re-posted and when I looked at it, the number of items hadn’t decreased much. I called my friend who was the assistant there and said that I’d be happy to take everything off his hands. It took two trips, but when I started listing items (I was selling only on Half.com at the time), I was shocked at the prices some items were fetching. Old reference books and certain ten year old textbooks sold for almost as much individually as we’d made in that book sale.
After a couple months, I realized that Half.com had an annoying flaw. Another seller could file a complaint about one of my items and Half.com would remove it before I had a chance to determine whether it was a valid beef. That got so annoying I pulled all my listings and started selling on Amazon. In addition to not having to deal with the anonymous complaint issue, Amazon allowed me to list items that were too old to have an ISBN.
Two things came out of this new way of generating revenue for the library. I ‘sold’ this new way of using donations through a weekly newspaper column as well as through individual conversations and patrons came on board in droves. Secondly, I got better at guessing in advance which items would be worth listing. One day, I was in one of the Goodwill thrift stores and realized I knew enough to try buying stuff to sell online to make a few bucks on the side for myself. Right from the git-go, my average was above 70% (7 of every ten items was worth listing on Amazon) It didn’t take long to realize that going to a thrift shop or to a library book sale, taking the stuff home and spend an evening adding merchandise to my seller account was just as much fun as playing those old RPGs. Instead of slaying Orcs and opening imaginary treasure chests, I was scanning ISBNs on books I’d never heard of and seeing absurd figures as the lowest price available.
In short order, I started a routine that I follow every day now. If a patron brings in donations or I get them from another library, I start by deciding what’s worth adding to the collection. Then I run everything through Amazon and list those items worth selling. There are now several additional steps in the overall process. Step #3 and 4 are often flipped, depending on my gut feeling. I either see if BetterWorld Books thinks the item is one they can sell, or I run it through PaperbackSwap/Bookmooch to see if it’s on someone’s wish list. If it is, then I list it. If not, I put it in one of three areas in the library that patrons know hold free for the taking stuff. There’s an area inside the front door for adults, a bright red bookcase for teens and juveniles and a decorated box on a chair in the kid’s area for picture books. Despite the occasional messy look, people really look forward to browsing these areas. I’m willing to bet that over 100 items each week find a home this way. When things start to pile up, the last stage of the triaging process kicks in. I box the rest and take it to the Salvation Army store in Palmyra. As a result, almost nothing ends up in the waste stream and we make plenty of people happy. At times, this free for the taking has expanded to include unwanted, but fully operational computers, surplus vegetables, Christmas decorations and even a working light/ceiling fan combo.
Last fall, another friend who works in a library called me and said he needed a big favor. They were hurting for storage space and could I help by taking a bunch of stuff off their hands. He hesitated before telling me that it was mostly audio books on cassette and VHS videos. Given how seldom these two types circulate any more, I can tell you that almost every other librarian would have declined to take these. However, my experience selling on Amazon has taught me a valuable lesson. Any audio book that wasn’t recorded on CD and any video (especially older documentaries) that wasn’t converted to DVD is valuable in its older format, so I agreed to take all the stuff. It turned out to be in excess of a hundred boxes and I’m still not finished going through it. What I have handled, however, has resulted in some eye popping sales to benefit the Hartland Public Library directly, and every other library in Maine indirectly. Since we plow all revenue generated this way back into the collection, it has allowed us to buy a large number of TV series on DVD (Downton Abbey Season 5 arrived yesterday and Game of Thrones, Season 4 has been pre-ordered). Books that I couldn’t ordinarily justify because of low circulation, get bought via my Amazon Prime account and we have them in just a few days. We just added Salesman Angler by Maine author Bob Leeman as well as Charcuterie : the craft of salting, smoking, and curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. We’re the only Maine library with the Leeman book and one of just two owning the other one. Without the flexibility of Amazon revenue, there’s no way we could meet these wants that patrons have.
I know this column is much longer than most, but I wanted to give readers a thorough look behind the scenes. I’ll finish up with a list of ten recent sales of non-book items so you can see for yourself why I’m a firm believer in the old adage that “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
1-A Confederacy of Dunces [Audio CD]  Toole, John Kennedy; Whitener, Barrett. Your earnings: $15.89
2-Bookman’s Wake [Audio Cassette]  John Dunning; George Guidall. Your earnings: $22.90
3-Travels of Jaimie McPheeters [Audio Cassette]  Taylor, Robert Lewis. Your earnings: $44.15
4-Mrs. Pollifax, Innocent Tourist [Audio Cassette]  Dorothy Gilman; Barbara Rosenblat. Your earnings: $16.10
5-Life and Death in Shanghai [Audio Cassette]  Nien Cheng; Penelope Dellaporta. Your earnings: $22.90
6-Understanding World Religions What is Islam? [VHS Tape]. Your earnings: $22.90
7-The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss – Volume 5 [VHS] [VHS Tape] . Your earnings: $14.40
8-he Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss – Volume 6 [VHS] [VHS Tape] . Your earnings: $10.15
9-With This Ring [Audio Cassette]  Amanda Quick; Barbara Rosenblat. Your earnings: $9.85
10-Duets [Audio CD] Pass, Joe; Pisano, John. Your earnings: $18.65