This post originally appeared on Nathan Holmquist’s website, Book to the Future.
How I got a recycling center to literally give me $3,000 in books.
Half the battle, I’ve heard it said, is just showing up.
Recently, I moved from a city I unofficially dubbed “The thrift store capital of the world” to a town ½ its size with the 1/10 its book sources. I expected my Amazon revenue to decrease to scale if I didn’t get creative.
To get outside my comfort zone, I made my first stop the recycling center. No, I wasn’t going dumpster diving. I had a bigger plan.
I had heard stories of enterprising booksellers arranging for huge pickups of thousands of books from recycling centers. I’d even done two pickups myself last year, with a moderate work-to-yield ratio. The profits from these pickups weren’t quite enough to inspire me to make this source a high-priority, but the potential was obvious.
My new plan was to establish an ongoing relationship with the recycling center in my new town, and insure every book that fell into their hands went directly into mine. I put on business-casual clothes, recruited a female friend for added legitimacy, and walked into the office of the region’s largest recycling center.
The receptionist called out a man she said could answer my questions about books – if they received many of them, where they went, and if I could buy them consistently by the pallet.
The man said they don’t receive enough books for it to be worth my time. But he did say there was one place in town that did: A local “center for hard-to-recycle materials”, who took everything from computers to vinyl records. He told me he used to work there himself, and they got a ton of books.
Plan B: The “center for hard to recycle materials”
We drove to the facility buried in a warehouse district. Right away I knew this was big: Outside a garage on the edge of the property I could clearly see four massive wire-frame pallets of loose books. I walked over for closer inspection and was immediately met with an employee, throwing out a giant tub of books.
I told him I had noticed the books and was curious what was done with them. I wanted to feel the situation out before revealing my hand as a bookseller.
“We sell the ones we can, and recycle the rest,” he said, motioning into the garage.
I looked in and saw something that looked like a mix between a bookstore and a factory assembly line. Floor-to-ceiling were thousands of books, and several people were busy packing them into envelopes.
But there was wiggle room here. One, they weren’t selling via Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA), clearly evidenced by the small assembly line of book packing taking place inside. Since a ton of books that have no FBA-value can be sold profitably via FBA, there was still some potential to arrange for regular pick ups of their throwaways – books that would only be profitable when sold via Fulfillment by Amazon, but were of no value to them.
First I had to feel this guy out – hourly employee, or bookselling contractor who struck a deal with the recycling center before I did?
“Do you work for the recycling center, or…?” I asked, in the most stilted way possible.
“Sort of. You could say I contract with them and they give me space to store and sort the books.”
This was pretty vague, but he seemed to be saying he had beat me to the punch. An enterprising bookseller who got to them first, and arranged the deal of the century: A huge and steady source of books together with free warehouse space.
I had a ton of questions, like: Is your arrangement with them commission or salary-based? Or do you pay them by the book? And what becomes of the throwaways? But I didn’t want to reveal my hand just yet.
“What are these books here?” I asked, pointing to the pallets.
“Those are books we either can’t sell, or have too many copies of. A high school just dropped off about 10 copies each of hundreds of titles, and we just can’t sell all of them.”
I picked up a copy of The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing off the top; a book I had sold many times and knew had FBA value.
“Feel free to take as much as you want. There’s a lot of good stuff in there.”
That was all I needed to hear. I took the book and thanked him for his time. Once in the car, I said to my friend – “I hope you’re free tonight. I need your help.”
The midnight raid
The plan was to fill my truck, drop the books off at home, and repeat until every pallet was empty. While hard to guess, I was estimating there were at least 10,000 books there. I was going to take “feel free to take as much as you want” very literally.
At midnight, we returned with my truck. I backed up to the first wire cage. We both climbed in, and began shoveling books into the truck bed. It was crude and ungraceful, but it was fast, and that’s all the mattered. I was anticipating it would take 15+ trips to get every book, so there was no time for grace.
Just as the man had stated, there were a ton of high school textbooks. When we hit patches of multiples of the same title, I’d quickly scan one to see if they were worth our time. It usually was. The textbooks were all brand new. One of the first textbooks I scanned was priced at $350 and ranked 380,000 (The price quickly dropped, but I sold it within a month for $220).
When the truck was about halfway full, this success story took a turn for tragedy. It started snowing. Hard.
We tossed the books into my truck faster. It was soon full, but not before the entire book-mountain was covered in an inch of snow, and many if not most of books had incurred some degree of water damage.
After getting home and unloading the books, at least two inches of snow had fallen and we could write off most of the books that remained at the recycling center a loss. I can safely estimate $30,000+ worth of books was buried under wet, slushy snow.
While a tragedy, I finally sorted and listed the books that made it into my truck, which came to a final selling price of just over $3,000. Using the rough “60% rule,” when all the smoke clears I should make somewhere in range of $1,800 off this one trip.
Half the battle is just showing up. Having a plan isn’t what’s most important. Putting yourself where opportunities might present themselves is. Some of my best book scores have come from putting myself somewhere with a “let’s just see what happens” approach. It’s uncanny how often this works.
Your competition is probably doing everything wrong. The majority of books the bookseller from the recycling center deemed “unsellable” didn’t just have FBA value, they had non-FBA value. Meaning, he could have made money off them, but instead threw them out by the thousands. Why? I have no idea. When someone is throwing out books worth $350, it raises the question: What exactly is a sellable book to you? What is your pricing strategy? And: Do you have any idea what you’re doing?
In the weeks since, I’ll have an occasional “glass half empty” moment and think: Yes, that actually happened. I let $20,000 vanish under a pile of snow.
How can I prevent this from happening in the future? Formally arrange to pick up their throwaways before they get dumped into pallets and set outside. But that’s a story for next time…