Our Reading Lives

My Books Will Outlive Me: Reflections From a Used Bookstore Employee

Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis


The view from my section, with books stacked to the ceiling

I’ve worked in bookstores for eight years now. The first four were at a small location of a new, chain bookstore, and the last four have been at a large, family-owned used bookstore, so I feel like I’ve gotten a good overview of how bookstores work as a whole.

One of the odd things about the experience is how it’s changed my relationship with my books as objects. On the one hand, working at a new, chain bookstore taught me not to view books as sacred objects–one of the dirty little secrets of the book industry is that many new books just get recycled if they don’t sell. I would spend hours tearing the covers off mass market paperbacks, breaking the spine to separate the book into two parts, and then recycling them. When I first started, I was horrified at this, probably in the same way that a lot of you felt reading that. Soon I realized, however, that some books just aren’t worth keeping. Harlequin romances that aren’t current are not going to be bought by anyone, and the world doesn’t desperately need more John Grisham paperbacks floating out there. Which isn’t to say that they’re bad books, just that they’re common.

Moving into a used bookstore reinforced that in some ways: Honestly, if you don’t want your Twilight books any more, you might as well recycle them. I guarantee every used bookstore has as many as they can handle. I watch hundreds of books get turned away every day, and we’re packed to the rafters with the ones we do take. But on the other hand, I’ve realized that I see books differently from a lot of other Book Rioters, because I don’t consider myself the final owner of my books. Even my most loved books will probably go to someone else eventually, even if it’s after they’ve been pried from my cold, dead hands. I think of myself as just one of caretakers of my books, as one set of hands they will pass between before the binding wears out.

Which is one of the reasons that I don’t write in my books, or dog ear them, or dedicate books that I give to people. I find myself thinking, when I read about people highlighting in their books or annotating them, “Well, that will hurt the resale value.” I know that’s silly, because not everyone plans on trading in their books–not everyone even has a used bookstore nearby to make that an option–but it’s so much a part of how I think about books, it’s hard not to consider it. As someone who prices and sorts used books, I know that books written in will probably not be accepted, so it makes it a whole lot more likely that you will be the last reader of that book. And I know that kids’ books that come in with “To Timmy, Love Gramps 1997” are less likely to sell.

I firmly believe that there’s no one right way to read, and I do admire the meaning that people get out of their marginalia, but it’s not a practice that I’m likely to follow myself. Working in a used bookstore has given me an odd relationship with books as objects: I know that many books are effectively worthless because they’re so common, but I also think of books as having a lifetime that (ideally) stretches out longer than any one reader. For now, I’m just trying to be a good caretaker of my books, until the next reader picks them up, and discovers that well-worn story for the first time.