Casey Curran says he views the conversation between his work and the authors as an "unknown collaboration" of sorts, and though he understands there are people who view book art as sacrilegious, he says that the way we look at books is changing.

"I've never had anyone look at my work and say that I shouldn't be cutting up a book," he says. "There's a wealth of information in books that's a great jumping-off point for my work . . . I don't think Aldous Huxley would have ever known that some kid in Seattle would chop up his book and sell it to people as art, but that's how I made those pieces."

Claire Lawton
Claire Lawton

Long before Pedro Esparza switched off the lights and shut down the last Borders bookstore in Arizona, he remembers standing next to a Dumpster with his fellow employees and throwing away books.

The 30-year-old worked at Borders stores in Tempe and Mesa on and off for more than four years and says that in order to claim losses on books that didn't sell or that were pulled to make room on the floor for things like coffee stands and year-round gift displays, employees are forced to strip the covers off before they toss them in the garbage. No book can be saved, donated, or left intact. That, Esparza says, was typical Borders policy.

Dan Cullen of the American Booksellers Association says the practice of stripping books for their covers is a choice the bookseller makes. If books aren't selling on the shelves, even after discounts and specials, sellers often are forced to return them to the publisher or wholesaler and claim their losses. Some publishers and wholesalers, he says, just want the cover and the ISBN code. To them, the rest of the book has no value.

The mass-market paperback book that we know today was born during WWII when the cost of paper was less than its transportation. Cheap paper and binding meant publishers could print a higher number of books at a relatively low cost around the country. When books weren't selling by the end of the fiscal year, bookstores began claiming losses by tearing off the covers and sending them to the publishers. This created an audit trail for booksellers and was cheaper for both parties.

But coverless books began popping up at thrift stores and flea markets, and in the 1990s, publishers began printing copyright notices on the insides of cheap paperbacks that read: "If you purchased this book without a cover, it has been reported to the publisher as 'unsold and destroyed,' and neither author nor publisher have received payment for this book."

The notice was meant to discourage booksellers and others parties from pulling books out of the trash and attempting to make an illegal profit, but the notice often was ignored and eventually was phased out. Today, big booksellers still send the covers back to their publishers and then often don't donate them because there's no monetary incentive and no tax credit available. Their loss has been claimed already. Smaller bookstores don't have the money to send the entire books back and don't have an incentive to find a willing charity.

On the last day Borders was in business, Esparza and a few fellow employees took down the fixtures, boxed up the remaining books, and took one last look before locking the doors.

The fate of the books left behind — the ones that hadn't sold after rounds of 25, 50, and 75 percent off sales — was left in the hands of liquidators and bulk wholesale buyers who would eventually swing by. But as reported by Inhabitat and Huffington Post in 2010, Borders planned to throw the remainder of its literary merchandise away. Employees and advocates created Facebook pages urging Borders to donate their remaining stock ("Save the books!"), but, ultimately, they weren't successful.

On January 20, 2010, Borders posted a notice to employees on its server, Bookmark, that though its Waldenbooks stores would be working with donation organizations to collect unsold gift items, mass-market paperbacks would be destroyed. The notice then was posted on the DonatenotDumpster Facebook page by employees:

"It is important for everyone to realize that the practice of stripping mass-market books and returning the covers for credit is an industry-wide practice and we won't be able to change this overnight," the notice reads. "It is also important to note that, if we were to return the mass-market books whole copy to the publishers, they would in turn pulp them, so we would have spent as much freight, and a much bigger carbon footprint sending tonnage across the country versus just covers. As for donating the books, even if we could do such a thing (which the publishers currently will not allow), how would we determine which books were suitable to be donated to which organization . . . I'm sure many of you have tried to donate books to libraries and schools and found that it is not an easy task. They very often simply don't want them — especially mass-market — due to content and/or condition."

Efforts to find the creators of the Facebook page and website went unrewarded. The URL has expired.

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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.