Disappearing Ink: What Will Happen to All the Books?

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.

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 so 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 typically are 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 in 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, step aside. The book has captured the retro-minded 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.

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Claire Lawton
Contact: Claire Lawton

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