The most overlooked source of free Amazon inventory is the garbage. Here’s everything you need to know about dumpster diving for books.
How dumpster diving for books changed my life
This is going to be a weird one.
I wouldn’t be selling on Amazon today if it wasn’t for dumpster diving.
When I started selling books on Amazon in 2007, I was totally broke. Like really, really broke.
After overhearing a couple at a garage sale talking about reselling books, my girlfriend and I had a lightbulb moment and started scouring the Los Angeles landscape for books we could sell on Amazon.
Problem was, we had almost no money.
Pulling books from dumpsters: better than being a medical experiment
If you think dumpster diving is undignified, try being a lab rat.
At this time, I was literally making money participating in these weird scientific studies in the basement of the neuroscience building at Cal Tech University, next door to our house (no electric shocks were involved, but I was no less the guinea pig).
On the way back home one day, I cut through the campus’s mini-recycling center and stuck my head in one of the 25 dumpsters. Why? Because I like going (and looking) places I’m not supposed to go (or look).
The dumpster was full of hundreds and hundreds of books.
I got my girlfriend and we went back that night with her car, which we filled with every book in that dumpster. Now these were the days when Amazon wasn’t flooded with booksellers, so you could pick up any book and have a 1 in 10 chance it could be sold for a reasonable profit on Amazon (vs. the 1 in 200 we see now). So I don’t need to tell you we made a killing.
And the fact that it was apparently a professor who gutted their office of obscure academic texts means we made a double-killing.
I was hooked on dumpster diving.
Am I still dumpster diving for books?
8 years later, nothing has changed.
This could be a story about how I clawed my way from humble dumpster beginnings to a more dignified approach to book sourcing, but I’ll be honest: it’s 8 years later and I’ve been knee-deep in a dumpster getting books in the last 24 hours.
My current best source of books is a dumpster
For the past several months, I’ve been frequenting a dumpster that is so fruitful, you would not believe me if I told you. As in, you would literally call me a liar. But it’s real.
While I don’t believe in scarcity on a macro-scale, it can happen on an individual-source-scale. So I’m not going to publicize exactly what this source is here.
Let’s just say dumpster diving is alive and well in my world. Even after 8 years and tens of thousands of dollars in dumpster-dived profits, I still find myself peering into giant metal bins at midnight and asking: “Why would someone throw all these books away?”
Why dumpster diving?
Why would I subject myself to this hobo-style indignity? Three reasons:
- There’s books (and lots more) in those dumpsters.
- It’s fun.
- No one else is doing it.
If you lined up 100 Amazon sellers and told them there were totally untapped, virgin sources of inventory all around them, all 100 would beg you for specifics.
If you told them this inventory was also 100% free, a Guantánamo-style interrogation / riot would ensue.
And if you told them this mystery source was a dumpster, 98 would run the other way.
Why Amazon sellers are so averse to dumpster diving for books
The reasons so few Amazon sellers dumpster dive are the reasons you should.
Why are people so dumpster-averse? A few reasons:
- People don’t believe valuable books are thrown away in mass.
- People don’t know where to go.
- People are scared of digging through trash.
- They actually have to put in work to find dumpster sources (Google won’t help you here.)
- It’s inconsistent.
Remember: Anytime people can’t / won’t do something, that’s an opportunity. And this is a big one.
5 reasons dumpsters are the best source of books to sell
The best untapped resource of free inventory is all around you/
Before we get into the tactical stuff, let’s address the limiting beliefs and attitudes surrounding dumpster diving for books. I’ll go down the above list one by one.
As you read this, you should be hearing opportunity with each. I’ll repeat something many times: Anywhere other sellers won’t go – due to fear or sloth – is yours for the taking.
#1: People don’t believe valuable items get thrown away.
We associate trash with… trash. I.e. something of no value. Despite the well-worn cliche about “One man’s trash….“, we don’t really believe that extends to the actual trash. But this is a false assumption.
#2: People don’t know where to go.
You can’t look up “dumpsters with profitable stuff” on Yellowpages.com. You have to hit the road (often at night) and put in the trial-and-error work.
#3: People are scared of digging through trash.
Either through some vauge-and-unfounded concern over legal consequences, or that the dumpster is going to swallow them alive or something, people just won’t do it.
#4: They actually have to put in work.
Everyone wants the push-button, paint-by-numbers answer. And this is great when it works (not everything that’s worth doing is hard). But 99 times out of 100, if it’s easy, everyone else is doing it, and at best you’re just picking up 100 other seller’s crumbs.
#5: It’s inconsistent.
I frequent dumpsters that are only fruitful 1 out of 10 times I visit. And I frequent types of places that, when I investigate the same type of place in another town, is totally fruitless. It’s a very hit-or-miss source.
Five facts that make dumpster diving for books possible
The biggest hurdle here is one of belief. So I’m going to eradicate those beliefs right now with 5 facts that explain why there is free stuff lying around in dumpsters all around you (this doesn’t just apply to books).
#1: Books have a low perceived value.
This is a cultural thing. Why are most DVDs under $15 new, but $3 used at a library sale; yet most books books are over $15 new, but only 50 cents at a library sale? We just don’t assign (resale) value to books. It’s a blindspot. And as such, we throw a lot of them away.
#2: Most places that have books don’t consider books their business
To a lot of place that have a lot of books, books are not a profit center, and are often perceived as more of a burden than an asset. They don’t need books. It’s not their business. And most businesses gladly leave money on the table if it means they can focus on something that will make them more money. Books are often the first things to go (…in the dumpster).
#3: Most places that have books have more than they can sell.
Between being physically cumbersome, and the low perceived value we talked about, people get rid of books at a crazy rate. When there’s limitations of physical space and low perceived value, books are often the first casualty.
I know of one library book sale that throws away 90% of the books donated. I’m not kidding.
#4: It can be more costly to liquidate books then throw them away.
If you’re a bigger business with damaged merchandise, returned merchandise that can’t be sold as new, etc; figuring out a way to liquidate something can be way more of a burden than any potential minuscule profits can offset. And that’s when books go right in the dumpster…
Here it is: My 8 best advice from 8 years of dumpster diving for books
This list is a combination of noticing common questions that come up, and questions people never think to ask. Altogether, my plan is to eliminate any obstacles you have to tapping this free source of Amazon inventory. Sound good?
1) If there’s books inside, there’s books in the back.
That doesn’t mean always, but more often than you’d think.
This means that if you know of any big building full of books (think hard!), there’s probably a smaller metal box in the back with books – if not always, at least now and then.
2) Relax, you’re not going spelunking.
No ninja suits, grappling hooks, or dressing-up-like-a-bush required.
I bring a flashlight when dumpster diving. That’s it.
3) If dumpster diving was arrestable, I’d be serving a life sentence.
For some reason, the legal aspect is what everyone wants to fixate on. The issue of lawfulness is definitely the most common question among Amazon sellers when dumpster diving comes up.
At risk of sounding rudely dismissive, I’d never really thought of it until people started asking.
Or to definitely sound rudely dismissive: Is it illegal? Who cares?
Here are my thoughts:
When dumpster diving, you are intercepting something at it’s last stop before the landfill. By nature of the fact it’s in the trash, it’s owners have declared: “This is of so little value to me, it’s better off decaying in a landfill than spending one more day on my property. Books begone.”
So I cannot stretch my brain far enough to imagine any cop considering taking trash an arrestable offense.
And consider me an adequate canary-in-the-coal-mine. I’ve dumpster dived so many times in so many places (for books and otherwise) that if I’m still a free man, you’ll be fine.
If you ever got a ticket for dumpster diving, I’ll consider you a martyr and a hero. But it won’t happen.
4) Stay out of sight, but not because you’re a criminal.
The chance of a cop seeing you and arresting you (again, for what?) when dumpster diving is pretty much zero. But there are always weird people who like to play hero and call police when they see anything out of the ordinary – regardless of how benign it is.
So generally speaking, I’m dumpster diving for books at night, and being conscious of who might be watching – but not because it’s criminal. Just because a lot of people are crazy.
5) Then again, if you act like you own a place, you own it.
There have been many dumpsters over the years where being covert just wasn’t an option. I don’t cower in these instances, I just act like I own it.
If people are trying to gauge your shadyness-factor from a distance, all they have to go on is your body language. And if act like you belong, people are likely to assume that’s the case.
6) There is no checklist of dumpster book sources. That’s a good thing.
Everyone wants the dumpster checklist. Just tell them where to go, and they’re in. And if you can’t tell them, forget it. They don’t want to put the work in to figure it out themselves.
But it’s not as simple a straightforward list of dumpsters with books.
Dumpsters are more regionally-specific than just about any other source. The places throwing away books in your town aren’t the ones throwing away books in my town.
If you apply the formula I mentioned above (“If there’s books inside, there’s books outside”), and are willing to accept a lot of duds before hitting gold, you’ll succeed as a dumpster diver. Perseverance is key.
I know everyone wants a list, so here are a few of my favorites: Public libraries, college libraries, recylcling centers, and college dorms at the end of the semester.
7) Every place I’ve dumpster dived books is more clean than my kitchen sink.
I’m happy to deliver the news that the stereotype image of dumpsters as being occupied mostly by fish heads and half-eaten apples is (mostly) false. Most dumpsters where I’ve found books are mostly paper products, if not 100% books.
8) Often, only the very best stuff ends up in the dumpster.
I can’t explain it, but its not uncommon for me to find books in a dumpster are higher quality than the books inside. Counter-intuitive, but true.
And that concludes everything there is to know about dumpster diving for books to resell on Amazon.
PS: If you’re still a dumpster doubter, I have (partial) footage of me dumpstering over $200 in books.
This short clip is from the 9th source in my book sourcing documentary Book Sourcing: 1k In A Day. Check it out…
PS: Post your dumpster diving questions below.
The moment tried this, the cops would be on me like a duck on a June bug. I live in a very small town, therefore the cops and the local busybodies are all competing to make a name for themselves, and neither have much to do. Then, I would written up on the front page of the Hall of Shame, AKA the local tiny newspaper.
However, I would not be adverse to hiring a much younger, much bolder person to do it for me.
Peter Valley says
Just be stealth and you’ll be fine. But you can always hire me for my modest fee of $1 mil/hr.
There are communities in my area that have anti-scavenger ordinances – in other words, they have made it illegal to trash pick.
Yeah that sounds exactly like my town too. Bored over- zealous cops and bored super gossipy citizens who hate “outsiders” like me. That’s why I’m gonna try this 60 miles away in the nearest college town.
I was just wondering if there would be any robo-cop/security guards patrolling the parking lots like I see during the day? I was hoping their only purpose is to give parking tickets which makes them obsolete at night.
AZ MIke says
Good post. I did a lot of dumpster diving for a prior job and would suggest a magnetized flashlight to clamp on to the side of the dumpster and/or a cheap headlamp (available in any home depot type store or camping store.)
Some cities have ordinances against dumpster diving but they’re rarely enforced unless you make a big mess and leave trash outside the dumpster when you’re done. Technically, the garbage in a commercial dumpster becomes the property of the refuse company as soon as it is placed inside, and if it has a recycling value (copper, batteries, metal, cardboard, newspaper, plastic bottles) they may complain but I haven’t heard of a case where this has happened. Books are notoriously hard to recycle, unless they have an agreement with a penny-book outfit, so I doubt the refuse company would have a problem.
After reading an interesting article in Wired magazine on a guy who makes a living diving for electronic parts in Silicon Valley (http://www.wired.com/2015/02/high-end-dumpster-diving-matt-malone/) , I repurposed one of his ideas and used it for book sourcing. I looked at storage rental units around a large state university and used Google Maps satellite view to find one that had exterior dumpsters within their walls. I rented the smallest, cheapest unit they had (which was about the size of a hall closet in a small studio apartment) and made sure they had 24 hour access. The only thing I kept in the locker were some extra boxes and work gloves. Whenever I was in the area, I would check the dumpsters for books. About 1X a week, sometimes longer, I would find a box or more of books. After a semester break, there were often loads of college textbooks. The locker rental was $20/month, with 1 month free if I rented by the year.
The big advantages were that most of the stuff that occasionally makes dumpster diving nasty – floor sweepings, tossed-out food, etc. – was never present and I had access to the dumpsters in a restricted area that the general public did not. The owner asked me what I was looking for once and when I told him that I collected books and wanted to see if any college students had thrown out anything interesting, he had no problem with it,
I discontinued the experiment after a year. It more than paid for the small cost of the rental, but it was far enough away from my normal sourcing routes that I stopped. Worked pretty well, though.
Looking forward to the DVDs!
Peter Valley says
That is genius! And I’m loving this Wired article.
Laura Fox says
Which app do you use on your phone to look up the prices of the books on Amazon?
Peter Valley says
I think the reason most people overlook dumpsters is used baby diapers and other filth. Its always a good idea to ask perpiator of the business first time you go to rifle through their dumpster(s). That way if people ask or get leary the cops don’t get called because there’s a suspicious guy rooting through the dumpster(s). “He probably up to no good!”
Peter Valley says
My personal advice is that it’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
Yeah those damn libraries – only ever frequented by 3 types of people – those who don’t know the value of a textbook, babies and drug addicts. I’m always scraping those shitty diapers and used needles off the $40 textbooks…
Hey great article as usual. Here’s a quick question where the answer is probably going to be “it varies”. What percentage of your inventory comes from dumpster diving? The reason I ask is because I am a part time FBA seller and my sourcing time is limited. I know that if I make my thrift store route I will always find something, but the idea of free inventory is very appealing. Thanks.
Peter Valley says
Right now it’s about 20%, but that’s an unusually high percentage. In the past it’s been about 10% for me.
william eagan says
i am interested in your course/seminar.= thankyou
Have you had any problems while dumpster diving I went dumpster diving for the first time yesterday night at Barnes and noble and was stopped by a employee who told me that I couldn’t take books out of his dumpster and he even went a step further pulled out his phone and took a picture of my car and license plate !
Peter Valley says
Like I said in the article: A lot of people are genuinely crazy and want to be the “hero.” One note: I have never, ever found Barnes and Noble to be fruitful. Although I’d love to hear if someone has a different experience.
yes i have found bn to be fruitful just have t watch their dumpster and find out their dumping schedule, i dived on for 2 months, and found nothing, then about 2 weeks apart i found 2 different batches of returners that had nothing wrong with them, still profiting off them months later!!
We don’t do this often enough – our library sometimes puts out small bins of books, but it’s on the street and pretty populated with cars going by, but we have stopped and grabbed some books from time to time. We lucked out at our recycle center – someone tossed a bunch of home school books (teacher editions). Made out really well – even though they were old, they sold quite well (Christian type).
Thanks Peter – fun stuff!
Peter Valley says
Awesome! Dressing well and acting like you belong goes a long way. Don’t rule out that library.
Rachel Webb says
Thanks for the great webinar and insightful blog post!
I did my first dumpster dive recently… and was truly shocked and a wee bit sickened by what I found. People really are throwing away valuable stuff. Very strange. Within 10 minutes, I pulled out a pair of Logitech speakers, a Logitech web cam, and a Logitech presenter with laser… They are boxed and in perfect working order. Crazy. Also… a ream of fine 25% cotton paper, a small magnetic dry erase board for school kids – new in its wrapping, a full box of windowed security envelopes, new unexpired ink cartridges, toners… and more. I should realize several hundred dollars in profit from that very brief foray.
I don’t get it!!! Still trying to wrap my head around it.
Looking forward to rescuing some books, soon.
Peter Valley says
I think everyone now wants to know what dumpster you’re diving at!
Someone provocatively suggested to me that America is a very wasteful society and that I won’t find such dumpster diving luck in the UK. Personally I suspect I would..
Asa R. Holloway says
Where do you live?
In in Charlotte, NCwhere would I find information about that in my town?
J. Bull says
What the customer won’t know, right? While you do make some good points about DD, I’m sure you’d wouldn’t get the same positivr responses from customers. Now what you could do is go into an contract with the store/library/etc where you could pay (ex. .10 a book or pay by the pound), your profits are still phenomenal, no more diving, no more dumpster. Recycling companies have been doing this for years then they sell it by the pallette to mega sellers. Doesn’t hurt to ask, but it definitely hurts slipping face first trying to get out of a dumpster.
The “ew gross” attitude makes no sense to me. Stores WILL toss out perfectly fine stuff– I’ve picked up a fully functional cars/DVD/CD shredder, a bucket full untouched and fully wrapped mints, and yes, books.
These posts make me smile, I’m so glad others see the fun (and profit) in saving perfectly fine goods from the landfill.