Goodbye Old Friends: On Selling My Books

August 22, 2013 | 15 books mentioned 17 5 min read

As I write this sentence, I’m surrounded by old friends. About 1,500 of them. The bulk of my books, stacked on seven tightly packed bookshelves. I see yellowed paperbacks of John Barth‘s Lost in the Funhouse, Pynchon‘s The Crying of Lot 49, and Donald Barthelme‘s Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts. All purchased at the Northwestern University bookstore in 1970 by a disoriented, overwhelmed freshman from Dubuque, Iowa. From Ethan Frome to metaficton in a matter of months. It was like a non-swimmer being tossed into arctic waters.

cover Or the green, stained hardcover edition of Marion French‘s Myths and Legends of the Ages (1956), with its (to me at least) iconic illustrations by, I swear, Bette Davis. I had left it in my classroom on my last day at Bryant Elementary School, but it had my name in it and a kind teacher sent word to me at junior high to stop by and pick it up. I must have. I just looked up its market price for the first time. I could only find one copy for sale: $156.00.

Oh, I go on periodic weanings, but a lot remains. Take the row of Ace paperback editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs, purchased for 40 cents each at the Book Nook on Main Street when I was 11 and 12. These were being reissued contemporaneously with fantastic Frank Frazetta covers: a barely clothed woman with sculpted hair, a six-foot spear, flanked by snarling, but clearly domesticated, saber-toothed tigers. I can pick one up today and still feel a touch of that old excitement, the delicious anticipation of going on yet another adventure to Pellucidar, the stone-age world under the north pole, populated by a fantastic race of dimorphic humanoids whose males look like Neanderthals, while the women are clones of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. Who could resist? My well-used copies would be lucky to fetch $10.00 today.

I’m putting them all up for sale. Well, not all. I’m not willing, like the minions of part-time booksellers on, to list thousands of titles priced between $0.01 and $2.00 (my guess, hoping to make a dollar or two on handling and shipping). And there are a few I can’t part with. Yet. So I’ve decided to list the ones that, after painstaking research, appear to be worth at least $10.00, while not so dear to my heart that it would haunt me to see them go.

My idea is to whittle the shelves down. Who else would want the burden? Some 15 years ago, the last time we relocated, the burly, but middle-aged mover looked me up and down suspiciously as he climbed down from his van.

“You’re not a professor?” he asked. I shook my head, guiltily, wondering if I actually smelled like a library. Over half of the household weight was in books back then, and I’ve bought more shelves since.

I imagine the groan in the room as my will is read when they come to the sentence “And I leave my books to…”

My idea when I opened an online bookstore at was to not only reduce the burden on my heirs, but to monetize my impeccable selections, most bought at used book sales for pittances. For instance, I was happy last year to pack off to Canada my copy of The Integrative Action of the Nervous System (Yale, 1961) by Sir Charles Sherrington for $39. I’d bought it at an Iowa State University library sale for 25 cents in 1978. I’d studied his work in a graduate-level neurophysiology course at the University of Iowa and thought it might be worth something. No real emotional attachment there.

But what about the five books that Arthur Ashe took off my desk at the U.S. Tennis Association back in 1988 with a sly smile, saying he had to think a bit about the inscriptions? He hadn’t yet revealed his AIDS diagnosis, but would be dead of complications from it within five years. Included in the books he signed were his just-published, three-volume history of the Black American athlete, which he had written with the fury of the condemned, often in hotel rooms, carting a computer with him everywhere, long before the days of laptops.

cover One of the joys of scanning my library is spying the discoveries, the first or early books of authors acquired when they were far from subsequent fame. Each was like discovering an amazing new restaurant before the reviews start hitting and the crowds ruin the fun. I recall the wall of rejection letters T.C. Boyle used to decorate his office when a graduate student at the University of Iowa. I read his MFA thesis one afternoon in the library and recognized many of these darkly comic stories when his first, thin-selling collection, Descent of Man appeared. Years later, when I asked him to sign it at a Barnes & Noble in Kansas City, he looked at me leerily and said, “You know, these are getting to be worth a lot of money.” I told him I didn’t intend to sell it, and so far that’s been true.

cover I’m not sure how I was tipped to Carl Hiaasen, who remains one of my great reading pleasures to this day. But I bought a copy of his first solo novel, Tourist Season, back in 1986 and told everyone I knew to read it too. Or the pristine copy of Bill Kinsella‘s Shoeless Joe, purchased and read long before it was turned into Field of Dreams. Or knowing John Irving for his pre-Garp, hilarious Setting Free the Bears and The Water-Method Man and his Esquire profile of wrestling great Dan Gable, in which he bravely took to the mat with him.

But I must come clean. As fun as it is to get a sale, my currently listed volumes are moving at a pace which would take some 70 years to empty my e-store. Of course, that’s assuming people will continue to prize certain books: great out-of-print novels, first editions, volumes signed by the author. As e-books continue to take market share, paper books may be destined to become decorative objects, like cupboards built to hold commodes or vinyl album covers. I’ve seen a number of designer rooms in magazines where the books are shelved with titles to the wall (what?) or sorted by color. Maybe the next generation will fill shelves with books the way Gatsby did — real ones, but uncut (i.e. unread). Perhaps our progeny will shop for books the way the latecomers to the book sale do: $2 per shopping bag, or carrying a tape measure.

cover In any case, my shelves are already packed with wonderful books of no particular cash value. What will become of these? Who would want a battered paperback of Joyce‘s Ulysses, even if it was used in classes taught by both the critic Alfred Kazin and the novelist Anthony Burgess, filled (perhaps ruined further) with my annotations? Who could possible care about my complete collection of paperback Best American Essays, starting with the inaugural 1986 edition? How could I find anyone else who would take equal delight in the first sequential tennis stroke photos ever published, in my battered Volume Two of the American Lawn Tennis Library, Mechanics of the Game (1926)?

And to tell the truth, I’m still acquiring about 10 books for every one I sell. But, honestly, each is indispensible. True, the shelves are already full, but it’s always possible to cram a few more in. And when the neighborhood library has its next book sale (hardcovers $2), can I really leave those possible gems to the illiterates with scanners? Even if I don’t find another autographed copy of Tim O’Brien‘s first novel, If I Die in a Combat Zone (sold for $120 to an English professor at the Naval Academy), how can I possibly lose?

Image Credit: Pexels/Stanislav Kondratiev.

is a writer based in Madison, Wisconsin. His journalism has been appearing in Belt Magazine, with his series on the Foxconn development in Wisconsin receiving a Best of 2017 recognition from Longreads.


  1. We have a great non-profit organization in Baltimore, MD, called The Book Thing. You can go there to pick up as many books as you want, and they’re all free. I donate all my “extra” books to them, and it feels good to think that eventually they will all find new, appreciative homes. There’s nothing better than free books!

  2. If you want to cull and don’t want the hassle (but, hey, maybe it’s fun) of mailing off package after package, many bookstores are very knowledgeable about collectible items and pay up for them. The store I work for will offer between 30 and 40% of our selling price for a book. For expensive stuff, the offer is sometimes more conservative than that because the item will usually take a little while to sell. Still, a good bookseller knows that having cool stock depends on paying fairly for great books. Frankly, what sells quickest is what gets the highest rate (Bukowski, Murakami, Hemingway trade paperbacks in our case), but you won’t get hosed on your first editions if you choose the right spot.

  3. Peter, your comment brings to mind the one actually funny scene in THE CORRECTIONS, where Chip sells his unread continental philosophy collection at the Strand. (He spent $3,900 for the books and got $65.) I’ve always chosen to believe I know which buyer is depicted in that scene, which makes it even funnier.

  4. I really enjoyed your piece, but I think Feild of Dreams came from The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, a novel I enjoyed even more than Shoeless Joe.

  5. No, Field of Dreams definitely was from Shoeless Joe. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy was an even weirder book. Floods, Indians, moving statues, a thousand inning game…

  6. Mr. Tabak, have you not followed the recent studies by Pew or the Codex Group? I assume not, when you make misstatements about e-books gaining market share. Just because you are selling off your print books doesn’t mean that everyone else is. Paper books are not destined to be decorative objects. You’re talking like a marketer for e-books from five years ago, and your type was wrong then and wrong now. Read this article:
    “In a recent survey by the Codex Group, ninety-seven per cent of people who read e-books said that they were still wedded to print, and only three per cent of frequent book buyers read only digital.” Only 3% of frequent book buyers read only digital.

  7. donate these books to your local libraries, and even better put them in the “little free library” (

  8. When I retired I started going through all my ‘stuff” including books. Donat to your local library, they do such good things with the proceeds and many people will enjoy them.

  9. I understand why you’re trying to sell rather than donate – it is exciting to when someone buys (and let’s face it, every readers secret dream is to open their own bookshop).

    I tried to cull and sell my “rare” books, but had the same problem. I saw them online listed for high prices, but no one was buying. In the end I realized that the price I was willing to part with them for was not the price most were willing to pay.

  10. You know, I’m a young person who spends a lot of time at bookstores, buying enormous stacks. And I hear again and again “print books are going to die out.”

    But the reason I spend so much time at bookstores is that I’m an internet used bookseller. When I got into it two years ago, people everywhere said “you know, you’re getting on a sinking ship.” But my ship just keeps rising, my profits just keep climbing, and I just keep finding and selling more books.

    So cheer up: I think the imagination is worse that the reality!

  11. I think there’s also a program for shipping books to our military overseas.

    Hard to think of something better than reading for absenting yourself from the horrors of war…

  12. Donating to your local library always sounds like a good solution, but not all libraries accept donations. The Chicago Public Library system will not accept any book donations from individuals, period. It simply requires too much staff time to weed through them and figure out if they’re worth keeping.

    A good idea is to donate to prison libraries. There are several charities that accept book donations for prisons. Usually they don’t accept hardbacks, as the covers can be turned into weapons. The most commonly requested books at prisons are dictionaries.

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