For several years my husband and I ran a used bookstore in our small town. It was a dream come true for me; loving books as I do. We struggled mightily to make it a profitable business, but it just wasn’t happening. To diversify and add to our sales, I began selling books through the mail, targeting homeschoolers, who loved old books just as much as I did. Despite the poverty we were thrust into, I have wonderful memories of those days when our homeschooling family would travel to book sales all over Iowa, lugging back boxes full of library discards. It seemed every library in Iowa was weeding out the same old books. I knew exactly which books to snatch up for my mail-out list: the Landmark series books, Childhood of Famous Americans, the We Were There series; books that taught history in an interesting fictional form. Everyone in the homeschooling circles seemed to want the same titles and they were sure-fire sellers, at $4-$12 a pop. Then there were the baby-boomer favorites from their own childhoods; books they wanted their children to enjoy. I snatched up every Carolyn Haywood, Eleanor Estes, and Elizabeth Enright book I ran across. Classics with beautiful covers and sweet illustrations sold easily with my descriptions (tight binding, lovely illustrations by Wyeth) even without any photos. My teen-aged daughter Elizabeth became my right-hand man at the sales, having been trained by her mother to quickly scan the tables of books for the gems and certain authors. By the time she’d graduated and left home, she rivaled me in her speed in the hunt for good books. Between the two of us, we’d start at different ends of the room and fill a box in less than five minutes. Terhune dog story? Check. All-of-a-Kind Family series? Check. Signature series biography? Check. We were good, and we knew what our customers wanted. Some of our customers sent us lists of what they were looking for to fill in their own collections. I got to know their family’s taste. One mother, in particular, taught me a lot about authors I’d never heard of. I started adding authors like Rebecca Caudill and Lenora Mattingly Weber to my search. Sometimes we’d come home from a book sale with 20 boxes of books to add to our store and my mailing list. When the store closed, I continued selling from my list for another year or two. I had regular customers who bought from me, and some of them bartered with educational supplies and cute children’s clothing for the books on my list. My daughter Emily was my best-dressed baby; dressed to the nines in quality 100% cotton Hanna Andersson and other boutique clothing I bartered for with another mother in exchange for boxes of books. It was a win-win situation, a way I could make some money at home and rationalize traveling to book sales. “I’d love to see your book shelves. They must be amazing,” this same woman gushed once, and her comment gave me pause. I loved books. Going through the books the morning after a sale, I would sit on the floor and slowly go through the boxes, sorting the books into piles according to the subject headings of my mailing list: Childhood of Famous Americans in one stack, Landmarks in another, historical fiction separated from general fiction. I’d caress the covers of my childhood favorites, marvel over some of the illustrators and the bright and colorful dustcovers. I’d marvel at the beauty of some of those old books. I knew my stuff when it came to picking out the books. Ex. Library copies weren’t worth as much as their non-library counterparts, first editions were more valuable, certain illustrators could add to a book’s value. Even before my introduction to the Internet, I knew which books were collectible. Our bookstore had included a shelf of collectible books, where we could get as much as $25-$40 for certain books, even in our small town. I learned what was valuable by reading magazines and books detailing book values, and by watching our customers. Occasionally, a book collector would come through our town, dropping $100 to $200 in one fell swoop, concentrating on that one shelf alone. Unfortunately for me, the books I yearned to own were the books that we had to sell because we needed the money. At the time, I certainly couldn’t rationalize keeping any of those childhood favorites when selling them could mean the difference in being able to pay a light bill or put food on the table.
Love to see my bookshelves? Other than our own homeschooling books and a large educational reference section, I only owned copies of my favorite adult fiction books, books that were neither sought after by my customers or valuable. I didn’t keep any of the wonderful children’s books I found at library book sales. I couldn’t afford to. I hoped someday to begin collecting old children’s books for myself. Getting on the Internet as a bookseller made that idea even more remote, considering my need for income. I didn’t jump on the Internet bandwagon until 1998. The first thing I did was check out the website I’d been hearing about in hushed whispers at the book sales I’d been attending: eBay. When I typed in the search box to see what some of the books I couldn’t keep in stock were selling for, all of a sudden the recent behavior of one of my best customers made a whole lot of sense to me. This woman from New York had taken to calling me every month with her orders, to get a jump on the other customers. Not only that, but she’d started offering me more money if I’d become her personal shopper. “I’ll give you $15-$20 for every Janet Lambert you can find for me, and even more for the Maud Hart Lovelace and Lenora Mattingly Weber books you can find. We needed the extra money, and for a month or two I’d allowed this customer the heads-up advantage to my other regular customers. As I scrolled through the offerings of these books on eBay, I could barely take in what I was seeing. The same books this woman had offered me $25 for were selling for $250 on eBay! At that time, it was simple to discern a seller’s e-mail address just by clicking on their user name. Sure enough, one of the top sellers on the auction site was, in fact, my homeschooling New York mother, the same mother who’d told me the month before that she’d put her children back in school because she’d started up a home business that was taking up too much of her time. Apparently, a home business that involved re-selling $200 worth of books every month from me for ten times that amount on the Internet. The Lois Lenski books I’d hoped to own someday? They regularly sold for anywhere from $50 to $200. All except Strawberry Girl and Corn Farm Boy. I allowed myself to keep those two titles, and everything else I got my hands on went either on my mailing list or posted on eBay. Unfortunately for that New York customer, her rich Iowa source of books dried up, but so did the easy access to that type of book. Everyone who sold books was looking for the same titles, and most of the nearby libraries had already gotten rid of their supply of discards. There were a few golden years of eBay selling when certain authors and titles were so highly sought after, I couldn’t believe that I’d sold the same books for less than $10 on my mailing list. How fickle the world of book selling is. Now, when I do a search on eBay, some of the books that sold then for $250, can sell for as little as $5.00. But during the heyday of children’s book selling, I soon had to rely on the occasional garage sale and thrift store finds to make any decent amount of money through eBay sales. Once I was on the Internet, I stopped doing a mailing list. I missed the regular interaction with book-loving homeschoolers, the bartering, and mostly, dealing with all the books. We moved soon after I discovered Internet selling, and for ten years I lived in the country, occasionally selling on eBay, but mostly finding other ways to make money. I never stopped attending book sales, though. And occasionally, I would find a gem that I could rationalize keeping on my own shelf, until I’d filled one shelf of a bookcase, and started on another. I think about those days sometimes; the heady rush of finding the perfect book for one of my customers and the thousands of books that passed through my hands to find a new home; a home that wasn’t my own. It is only in the past few years I’ve started to stock my own selection of children’s books. As a little girl I imagined that only rich people could own books, and now I have bookcases bulging with books. As a homeschooling mother trying to stay afloat by selling books, I imagined someday owning the books I unearthed at sales and sold so easily. I carted home literally thousands of Childhood of Famous Americans volumes and sold them as quickly as I found them. I haven’t seen any of those for several years now. The Landmark series books were the same. I’d pick up dozens at each library sale. Now I only see one or two a year. And the Lois Lenski books I reluctantly sold to my customers? I regularly check their prices on eBay and while they don’t sell for $200 anymore, I still can’t rationalize paying $50 for a children’s book just to fill my own shelves. But I am picking up children’s books here and there, now and then. I do allow myself that luxury, the luxury of owning something that brings a smile to my face every time I pass my bookshelf.
I check the “Under $10” cart of nostalgia at the HalfPrice bookstore every time I shop there, too. Sometimes, I’ll buy one of the books that speak to me, like these two books that I found on the marked-down shelf last time I visited.
The beauty of their covers fills me with a joy that far surpasses their $5 and $7 price tags. I even occasionally stop at the library in the small town where I grew up. I worked there as a teen, and then again in 2002 for a few months. Usually, I won’t find any books I want on their sale shelf, but last week I not only found a couple Vera and Bill Cleaver books I remember reading as a teen, but I unearthed an unexpected bonus. They hadn’t removed the card pocket or the library card yet, and there it was; my name, written on the top line in May of 1977. My little sister’s name was down at the bottom of the card. She’d checked the book out more than a year later.
I pointed this out to the librarian when I brought the book up to the desk to pay for it. She seemed a bit disgruntled that the card hadn’t been removed yet, and before I could stop her, tore the card pocket out of the book. I gasped out loud, and before she could tear it in half, I blurted out that I’d like to keep the card. She cocked her head and looked at me a little funny before handing it over. I would have had a difficult time explaining exactly why I wanted it; how looking at it was like taking a swift trip back in time to my teens.
Kind of like the feeling I get every time I hold a copy of a much-loved book from my childhood.