The pointless, bizarre, and totally true story about the first time I ever attempted to source books.
Confession: I’m totally exhausted after packing and shipping box sets over the last week. So for this article, I’m abandoning anything instructional or useful and telling a story. A really weird story about the first time I ever sourced books.
I was 17 and a senior in high school.
I had just gotten my first car. And my interest in dumpster diving was just emerging. One day these two things collided with an obsession that was already in full swing: Thrift stores.
There was a huge thrift store near my house that, while not a chain store, still had the feel of one. It was one of those very polished and “corporate” thrift stores. These are good for dumpster divers because it means that only the cream off the top hits the floor. The rest…. That meets it’s fate in the dumpster.
I was driving around with my friend Marty, and we stopped to check the dumpster. I’d furnished half my bedroom and 1/4 of my record collection from dumpsters, so I was hoping for more of the same.
I stuck my head in, and at first was unimpressed. It was thousands and thousands of books. This was one of those dumpsters that was the size of a semi-truck trailer. And this book-mountain occupied the entire northern half. Literally thousands of books. But it wasn’t what I was looking for.
This wasn’t necessarily pre-Amazon, but pre-me-selling-on-Amazon, or selling anything anywhere for that matter (I worked at a dry cleaners). So that never crossed my mind.
But I climbed in the dumpster anyway, to survey the rest of the contents. And as I waded through the book mountain, my mind turned to the local Half Price Books bookstore I had visited earlier that week. And that’s when I had my light bulb moment: I’m going to sell every one of these 5,000+ books to Half Price Books.
It was genius. Even if they paid me 25 cents each, it was still more money than I’d made in my entire life. I had no concept of resale value or any grasp of basic economics. I just did the teenager math – Bookstores sell books. I have thousands of books. The bookstore will pay me for them. And I will be rich.
The dumpster also had dozens of cardboard boxes, so I began filling them with books and handing them to Marty. He would then ferry them to my trunk, and we’d repeat. Quickly, my trunk was filling with hundreds of books.
About 10 minutes into this heist, I heard a door swing open on the other side of the dumpster. I froze. It was definitely an employee exiting the back door.
A minute passed and I didn’t hear any more activity. But I didn’t hear Marty either. I kept loading books into boxes, sensing the storm had passed. And that’s when I heard the crank start to turn.
It was the crank that raised and lowered the dumpster lid. I looked up and watched the dumpster lid lower, slowly. This, I was certain, was Marty’s unfunny version of a joke. I kept loading books. Ha ha Marty.
They say brevity is the soul of wit, which Marty failed to grasp. Because over the next 30 seconds the lid slowly cranked completely shut. The last sliver of light disappeared, and there I was – entombed in a dumpster.
“Marty, I can’t see. Open it up.”
Then I heard a chain jingle, and footsteps scurry away. A long moment passed….
It was Marty.
“She locked you in!”
In a panicked tone, he went on to explain a woman had come out, closed the lid, then chained and padlocked the crank.
He said he watched her peer inside the dumpster (which I had somehow missed), and she definitely knew I was in there. This was no mistake.
As I stood buried alive in total darkness, I told Marty to pound on the door and tell them to let me out.
Marty pounded on the door, shouting. “Hey, you locked my friend in your dumpster!”
After several rounds of this, a voice came from the other side of the door – “Police coming!”
There are a lot of injustices in the world, but taking books destined for a landfill was not in the top 1 million. In fact it wasn’t on the list at all. So I wasn’t worried about jail. But I wanted to avoid a police interaction.
Marty and I started scheming through the gap in the dumpster lid about where he might get a pair of boltcutters within walking distance to liberate me from my metal tomb. We ran down our mental Rolodex of hardware stores, and none were within walking distance.
True genius is born out of adversities just like this. So it hit me: We’re directly behind a giant store of random stuff.
“Marty, go inside and go to the hardware section. Find anything that might break a lock. I’ll pay you back.”
There’s probably some famed novel or Greek mythological tale or something about the slave freeing himself with his master’s tools. And even if there wasn’t, it was deeply poetic. I hoped this plan worked.
I felt around and found a giant bean bag. I sat down and awaited my fate.
Marty came back 5 minutes later. There was nothing in the whole store. Not even a hammer.
So that was it. The only thing about this that brought me any joy was the irony of what I knew was coming: The unheard of situation of a cop showing up to free a prisoner.
I told Marty: Save yourself. Go hide in the bushes or something. Then I reclined on the bean bag and waited.
A few minutes later, the inevitable: The sound of a car pulling up. A knock at the back door. Some muffled conversation. Then the jingling of the chain and the lid creaking open one crank-rotation at a time.
“Police. Come on out.”
I climbed out, bleary-eyed, to meet two cops and a small cadre of thrift store employees who probably hadn’t had anything this exciting happen in the store’s history.
I told them the story: Saw the dumpster, got curious, climbed in, I’m not a criminal or serial killer, etc etc.
After some banal grown-up talk about how I had created an “insurance risk” or some nonsense, they let me go.
I found Marty roaming a side street a few minutes later, and we drove off. This mission wasn’t over, because I had a plan…
Epilogue: I never revealed to the police the true bookselling agenda behind climbing in the dumpster. They never asked. And as such, they never knew about the hundreds of books that lay concealed in my trunk.
So of course we drove straight from the dumpster to Half Price Books, where we each took a box from the trunk and brought them to the buy-counter.
The guy at the counter barely gave the books a glance before announcing – “These aren’t really the kind of books we’re looking for.”
I was very confused. I had brought them tons of totally readable mass market fiction books and Garfield comic compilations. What’s not to like?
We went back and got two more boxes. Same response. Then two more.
In a few minutes they had rejected our entire dumpster haul, offering no explanation, and suggesting we donate the entire lot to the library.
When it was all over, we were back in the car, uncertain as to our next move, discussing the risk / benefit ratio of sneaking hundreds of books back into the thrift store dumpster.
And that’s the story of how my first book sourcing mission resulted in imprisonment, police, and zero profit.