Disappearing Ink

What will happen to all the books?

Disappearing Ink
Kira Shaimanova

On a cool Thursday evening in January, several women gather around folding tables in a Central Phoenix warehouse to sort thousands of books, pausing only to pull out a greeting card used as a bookmark or to show off a rare find. This ritual takes all year — and every year, the work of putting together what's billed as one of the largest used book sales in the country is the same. Only the titles change.

The volunteers quickly pull worn copies of Amy Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses, Relationships for Dummies and anything by Maurice Sendak out of grocery bags, stick them with color-coded price tags and place them neatly into a maze of tall shelves filled with salvaged produce boxes labeled by genre and topic.

A few weeks later, those books and about a half-million others took their places inside Veterans Memorial Coliseum on the Arizona State Fairgrounds for the 57th annual VNSA Used Book Sale.

Claire Lawton
Claire Lawton

By the time you read this, book fans will have lined up around the block in the dark with big, empty bags, waiting hours for the gates to open. Volunteers will have hustled between rows of tables and, by the end of the two-day sale, the VNSA — which used to stand for Visiting Nurse Service Auxiliary but now means Volunteer Nonprofit Service Association — will have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to benefit local charities.

And though many customers and VNSA groupies will have arrived at the sale looking for first editions and rare finds, just as many will be happy taking home an Amy Tan or a copy of Chicken Soup with Rice.

But not all the books donated to VNSA were lucky. Some didn't even make it to the sale table. The sorting process is pretty brutal, and those that didn't make it — just about anything by Dan Brown or Danielle Steele and, this year, a glut of Lance Armstrong biographies — were chucked into grocery carts and pushed to the back of the warehouse where the lights aren't as bright.

Some of those books in the back of the room will be split among nursing homes, food banks and the local jail.

The rest will be turned into pulp.

The volunteers note that the VNSA's main goal is to raise money for charity, and that even the books that end up in the recycle bin are worth cash. Organizations called "disposal buyers" snatch up recyclable books and ship them to plants where they're turned into a mush of paper pulp and sold as a raw material (but more on that later). The VNSA gets a cut of that sale.

No one with the organization tracks data by the individual book, but VNSA officials estimated a few days before this year's sale that of the half-million or so books donated, 400,000 would be put up for sale.

About 80 percent of the books offered for sale are typically purchased, and the rest were bought by a single California-based buyer who will go through another process of sorting, selling and tossing.

Back in that Central Phoenix warehouse, when asked how many of the books get thrown into the Dumpster throughout the sort, the volunteers exchange uneasy glances and softly agree, "Quite a few."

The truth is that we just don't have room on our shelves for all those books, and nobody wants to be the last stop before the Dumpster. This year, the VNSA took in a record number of books, many donated by used bookstores.

"Our donor base has definitely changed in the last few years, since the change in our economy and the introduction of electronic readers," says Barbara Simonick, communications director for the VNSA. "Larger numbers of our donations are coming from local booksellers."

That doesn't mean that we don't love books. The irony is that as Kindles, Nooks and iPads gain in popularity, so does nostalgia for their printed predecessor. Although industry experts estimate that more books than ever were published last year, people act as though the book already has taken its place in history as an artifact — or an endangered species, at least, fetishized and celebrated like a polar bear or a California condor.

"Save the Whales" T-shirts, move aside. The book has captured the nostalgic hipster's heart, imagination and cash. You can buy book-scented candles and perfume. Card catalogs are among the most coveted vintage items at flea markets.

And if you do actually buy an e-reader, well, you'll cloak it in a case designed to look like the tattered cover of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — if you're cool.

But here's a fact that will have the book-obsessed quaking in their Converses: Way more books than you can imagine are tossed in Dumpsters every day.

It's not just the VNSA. Far from it.

Turns out you can't give a good book away these days. In 2010, the Chicago Public Library released a letter explaining that because of budget cuts, book donations no longer were accepted. It cost too much to sort, input and shelve the thousands of books that came through donation bins. Libraries across the country soon followed.

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I am going to write a fucking story for the Dallas Observer. You people know who I am. 

O.K. Theseus: Big roads (Interstates, Tolls High 5, eternal beltline) are how some dispersed cities manage "minority growth"


I still order books online and support the local secondhand book store when I go into town... A book I had been looking for since back in the mid 1990's became available as a down load for Kindle or a reprint by a Canadian company for $43... I chose to pay $73 for a first edition and in one week it had appreciated in value to over $200 and now only 3 months later is being sold for $400.59 dollars.... I wish my other investments were performing as well.   

TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

It's pretty hard to get all teary eyed about zillions of pages of unsold Shades of Grey, Dean Koontz or Stephen King paperbacks heading to the shredder.

Probably the most noble use that paper-fiber will ever serve is cradling a dozen eggs home from the market for someone. 


As an author with a foot in both worlds--I write large illustrated coffee table books and work as an editor for an EBook company--I see some interesting issues.  For convenience and for books I just want to read, nothing beats an e-book. But you cannot share or loan an e-book. And it is hard (though not impossible) to autograph one.  I often want to share books I love, and cannot do that if I only have the e-book version. Thus I often end up buying two copies--one paper and one electronic--of books I really like. One to read and one to share and get autographed.