In Tempe's Changing Hands, one of the most popular independent bookstores in the country, book buyers say they are getting pickier and pickier — taking a small percentage of what customers bring in for sale and trade.

And Bookmans — a four-store chain that used to subsist on proceeds from the sale and trade of books and CDs — looks more like a grungy Goodwill than a bookstore; it much rather would have your board games and your cat trinkets than your hardbacks. The corporate word at Bookmans is that the books it doesn't buy and you don't want are given to charity. But on more than one occasion, clerks have admitted to customers that what's left behind is tossed in the trash.

That's nothing. The biggest culprits in the book dump are the biggest stores. When Borders went under in 2010, the giant chain came under fire for trashing unsold books. And after news arrived this January that Barnes & Noble plans to close 20 stores per year for the next decade, we're likely to face the next wave of criticism and harsh realities for unsold books. The number of books it will throw out is a mystery — our calls and e-mails to Barnes & Noble went unanswered.

Barbara Simonick, communications director for VNSA in the organization's book-sorting warehouse in Phoenix
Jamie Peachey
Barbara Simonick, communications director for VNSA in the organization's book-sorting warehouse in Phoenix
The 57th VNSA Used Book Sale drew thousands to the State Fairgrounds.
Jamie Peachey
The 57th VNSA Used Book Sale drew thousands to the State Fairgrounds.

When Borders closed, pictures of Dumpsters overflowing with mass-market paperbacks stripped of their covers were all over the Internet, along with statistics that indicate it's not just Borders, that bookstores return 30 percent to 40 percent of books to publishers every year, and between 65 percent and 95 percent of returned books are destroyed and shipped off to paper-pulping plants.

That's a lot of books.

The American Booksellers Association and Association of American Publishers won't confirm those numbers and, as of press time, the Huffington Post writer who reported those statistics hasn't returned our phone call, but ABA representatives do acknowledge that national book-selling chains often decide to claim losses on unsold paperbacks, and to do so, all they need to do is mail the cover to the publisher or wholesaler.

The rest goes in the trash. Paperbacks are easy to recycle, at least. Hardbacks, not so much.

Try to sell a few boxes of books — paper or hardback — at the Bookmans location in Mesa, and you'll get a glimpse of the likely future. On a reporter's visit in November, just a greasy copy of The Moosewood Cookbook and a couple of other books — out of three full boxes — made it into the "we'll take it" pile.

On another trip in January, Dave Eggers' What Is the What, Martha Cooley's The Archivist, and dozens of other books remained in the boxes.

The tchotchke-filled shelves at Bookmans just might be an introduction to the world author Gary Shteyngart describes in his 2010 novel Super Sad True Love Story, set in a near-future New York.

Shteyngart's main character, Lenny Abramov, is one of the few people left on the planet who loves and appreciates the printed book. At the beginning of the novel, Abramov is harassed on a plane by passengers who hate the smell of his open book, forcing him to stow it in the overhead bin. He later returns to his own bookshelf and promises to bring books back into popular culture:

Then I celebrated my Wall of Books. I counted the volumes on my twenty-foot-long modernist bookshelf to make sure none had been misplaced or used as kindling by my subtenant. "You're my sacred ones," I told the books. "No one but me still cares about you. But I'm going to keep you with me forever. And one day I'll make you important again."

Spoiler alert: That doesn't happen.

What is happening (not in Shteyngart's book, but in real life) is an odd phenomenon: As we celebrate the book in our Catcher in the Rye T-shirts, we increasingly are willing to destroy it. Literally.

For evidence, do a quick search of "book art" on the craft sale website Etsy or hipster eye-candy organizer Pinterest. You'll spot book lovers covering their nails in shredded book passages and drilling holes in their hardbacks to make cool iPhone charging stands, headboards, armchairs, Christmas trees, and desk lamps. Like used clothing, books now are available to purchase by the pound for "book artists" and hotel decorators. And big-name stores like Anthropologie raid local library sales and create drool-worthy seasonal displays before tossing the books in the Dumpster.

The reality is that we live in a weird time, when book publishing, book loving, and book trashing are all at simultaneous highs.

New York University Professor Clifford Siskin says he thinks books won't lose their cultural relevance tomorrow, but the day when it's a challenge to find a physical copy of a book you're looking for might come sooner than you think.

"I think [printed books] are going to get stranger at different rates in different places," says Siskin, who studies print and digital culture. "We're obviously in the early stages of a technological transition — many people are still nostalgic about print for a variety of reasons, but those reasons are soon going to become compensated by a range of technology . . . That's not to say books are going to disappear because of technology, but their function and how we interact with them will change."

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What a great-comprehensive article! Bravo, Claire!


Bookmans does have six locations and still loves books.  But it's un-realistic to expect them to say afloat with just book sales.  I'm disappointed to hear this, I know for a fact that the Mesa location does everything they can to recycle and donate to keep books (and other merchandise) out of dumpsters...


I have worked in the book industry for 11 years and have a personal library of over 5,000 books at home so it is safe to say that I love books. However, all this article does is lament and whine about the fate of books while completely ignoring the underlying problems. With the rise of e-readers millions of people who formerly supported the physical book industry have now completely abandoned it. This has many effects on the book industry but most notably it forces mainstream bookstores to downsize (Barnes & Noble) or go out of business (Borders) and forces used bookstores (like Changing Hands or Bookmans – a company which this article slanders) to look for different ways to make money besides relying on falling book sales. Hence, Barnes & Noble has invested tons of money into it's Nook e-readers & has to close 200 stores in the next decade and stores like Bookmans have to act like they would “much rather would have your board games and your cat trinkets than your hardbacks”. Blaming the retailers for this situation is moronic. We live in a market economy which means if the demand isn't there, retailers have to change or die. Smart retailers like Barnes & Noble and Bookmans are trying their best to adapt to a world where selfish and short sighted people would rather download “books” (that they don't actually own, it's more like they are renting) than support a beautiful physical medium that has been with us since the dawn of civilization. If you don't like seeing books die than ditch your e-reader and visit your local bookstore.

Addendum : Mass Market Paperback books are actually designed by the publisher with the knowledge that they'll have their covers stripped off and they'll be recycled. They are the closest thing the publishing industry has to a “disposable” book. This is no secret to anyone who has ever worked in the book industry. Also the author's claim that the stripped book notice was“ often was ignored and eventually was phased out” is a blatant falsehood. No reputable bookseller would attempt to sell a stripped book. This is not to say that it hasn't happened before, but it is very uncommon. Also, the “stripped book” notice still appears in mass market paperbacks printed to this day. It has not been phased out.

Afterthought : While outside the scope of this article it is important to note that grocery stores and restaurants throw out millions of tons of food while 49 million Americans struggle with hunger. If booksellers are to be lambasted for throwing out books why do food merchants get a free pass for doing the same thing, especially since they have the potential for saving human lives?


They want to get rid of books because they are harder to control and rewrite the content of them.  If they are all online, they can change the language of them as they so desire.


What a remarkable essay!  And no comments as of yet?  You have described one of the most profound changes in our civilization to take place in our own time, the altered, possible reduced ability to vet and share information that is worth sharing.  

This article deserves a Pulitzer.