Book Scavenging in Manhatten
January 20, 2008 9:11 AM   Subscribe

Book Scavenging. Hundreds of homeless people eke out a living scavenging books from dumpsters and sidewalk trash in Manhattan. Sidewalk is a book about the subculture of sidewalk book scavengers and vendors.
posted by stbalbach (52 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Neat article, from one who's been in Strand many times, and even pranked them on one occasion.
posted by Mach5 at 9:23 AM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

New York Times, giving away my hustle.
posted by iamck at 9:28 AM on January 20, 2008

I've been doing this for years and I'm not even homeless. My "trophy-book" was a brand new Salvador Dali book that was selling on amazon for $180!
posted by sswiller at 9:40 AM on January 20, 2008

okay. this is very heart-warming. but i have been the clerk in the only decent sized used bookstore in a down and out town. and it sucked. every hour or so, somebody with a load of harlequin romances they cadged from the soup kitchen free shelf or a bunch of evil smelling reader's digest condensed books would show up in front of me. (the street haul is pretty bad in a down-market industrial northern town, doncha figger.)

at first, i'd hand out money left and right for nearly anything. the boss was down with it, most of the time. he'd give money to the homeless and near-homeless right out of the till, regardless of whether we knew it'd go straight for alcohol or a fix. but as the boss's gambling addiction grew (what with a casino right across the street), we had less and less cash to go around. and some days it became a race to see if i would get paid (cash, since we never trusted gambling addict boss to hand over a check) or Joe for his bottle or Jane for a Coney. this was a shitty place to be, and some days there was a real struggle to stave off outright meanness after the fifth or so cache of junk would be dumped onto the desk.

[one time, a guy dumped a big plastic bin, and a gigantic roach came screaming out of there and into the unhealthy nether-regions of the space below the desk. we were infested for three years after that, right down to having tiny baby roaches go zipping around inside the screen of the credit card machine. eeek.]

i worked there nearly ten years. it was crazy. (and very interesting for an infinity of reasons.) but the constant struggle between the giving person i'd once been and the one trying to deal with constant (and often deliberately manipulative) guilt-pricking by people i saw nearly every day was rather ... difficult.

so i think there's another side to this story. there are loads of desperate people (some of whom are off kilter in a really unpleasant way) who try to get in on this trade and get very very offended when you don't want to buy their fifteen copies of Dianetics. as it was, we bought most everything. i coulda built a house out of Tom Clancy alone.
posted by RedEmma at 10:07 AM on January 20, 2008 [15 favorites]

It just kills me to see books in the garbage, so I'm glad to see some of them being rescued. I've only been to the Strand a few times, but it is one of the coolest places I've ever been.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 10:09 AM on January 20, 2008

"Is there any other industry in which such high-quality goods regularly make their way to consumers via a trash bin? Stand in the bookselling line at the Strand and the store starts to feel less like a dusty bastion of erudition and more like a messy, mulchy place where old ideas struggle to find new life."

I pulled a marantz 2275 out of the garbage a few years ago, not perfect condition, but worth ~$150 I expect. Last fall I picked up a load of 7 norstar meridian office phones that I promptly sold for ~$250. And, 3-5 more computer finds in the ~$100 range.

That is all from curbside garbage, sitting and waiting for me to happen by. None of this building super inviting you in to look at a private storage locker. So, I don't think there is anything special about books, in this respect.
posted by Chuckles at 10:12 AM on January 20, 2008

RedEmma, I have to confess I don't understand how a bookstore could be run like that. If you want to give to the homeless, fine, but "paying" them to bring in loads of crap that can't be resold (and in the worst-case scenario infests the store with vermin) seems nuts. I say this as someone who has worked in many a bookstore.
posted by languagehat at 10:14 AM on January 20, 2008

Used to work in a small bookshop in Manhattan, and our encounters with homeless were pretty much limited to them trying to steal from our outdoor tables or else trying to sell us something very pathetic they found in the gutter. Good on homeless recycling books, of course, but I have to admit I didn't see a hell of a lot of it.
posted by Football Bat at 10:27 AM on January 20, 2008

I bought almost all of my novels from street vendors when I lived in New York -- from the guys who sold directly on the sidewalk, no Strand markup! Generally very high quality -- I assembled almost a complete collection of Graham Greene that way.
posted by footnote at 10:35 AM on January 20, 2008

As he bends to pick a dog end, Aqualung notices a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows...
posted by Tube at 10:39 AM on January 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

[but btw RedEmma, nice piece of writing there . . . ]
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:58 AM on January 20, 2008

RedEmma, did you work at John K. King?
posted by ofthestrait at 11:02 AM on January 20, 2008

RedEmma, I have to confess I don't understand how a bookstore could be run like that. If you want to give to the homeless, fine, but "paying" them to bring in loads of crap that can't be resold (and in the worst-case scenario infests the store with vermin) seems nuts. I say this as someone who has worked in many a bookstore.

ha ha HAA! but of course, it *couldn't* be run that way, languagehat. it was an exercise--a *ten-year* exercise--in absurdity and insanity of the highest order! it's really why i couldn't bring myself to quit, though i was making 25 bucks a day plus a free lunch and all the books i wanted--it was fascinating in its long, slow, tragic, spiralling demise. this little tidbit was only the very crust of the proverbial Sisyphean rock--there were mushrooms growing on the floor in the aisles! people stuffing porn for later "perusal" back in the wilderness of the law section! Mennonites! the Mad Shitter (who waited until late at night and used Jane Austen to wipe his ass)!

i started the job thinking it wouldn't last a year before it imploded. turns out the hatchet was the IRS barricading the doors several years later. turns out (such a surprise!) the Old Man wasn't paying taxes. never mind payroll taxes. never mind unemployment.

the novel is forthcoming. but i have to wait for the Old Man to die.
posted by RedEmma at 11:12 AM on January 20, 2008 [6 favorites]

no, not in Michigan. this was Duluth.

i should clarify that a main aspect of working there was doing exactly what the boss didn't want you to do whenever he wasn't looking--i.e. organizing books, and refusing to buy things that wouldn't sell were top of the list. the boss's number one rule was to buy everything, but give very little money for it.

i used to call the bookstore The Tumor. and there was some fiction i wrote where a black hole formed in the "dollar bin," which was essentially a waist high compost heap ten foot cubed which no mere human could reach into without being sucked in bodily.
posted by RedEmma at 11:19 AM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

RedEmma, I agree with fourcheesemac: you're a hell of a writer. Let me know when the novel comes out and I promise to read it.
posted by languagehat at 11:24 AM on January 20, 2008

i lived in san francisco for 10 years. the scavenging culture there is rampant, but in my entire tenure there nary a decent book did I see. The streets were, however, positively awash with Danielle Steele and Dean Koontz pocket fictions hiding out mostly inside discarded microwave ovens. It would have been nice to stumble across the occasional nabokov or proust just to round the street-side selection out but lets face it, people do not discard things of objective worth. These books are loaned to lovers, or sold back to a creeky wood floored book house for another distinguishing person to encounter. The stuff this is discarded like so much rubbish is done so because it is just that.
posted by Escapetank at 11:44 AM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Mongo: Adventures in Trash by Ted Botha has a fascinating chapter about homeless book scavengers.
posted by mlis at 11:54 AM on January 20, 2008

Like others in this thread, this is something I noticed at bookstores and have been wondering about. The studies mentioned here sound fascinating. Understanding urban ecology is essential to developing philanthropic strategies that go beyond tossing money around to salve one's conscience.
posted by jefftrexler at 12:09 PM on January 20, 2008

Isn't this jonmc's bookstore?
posted by Rumple at 12:13 PM on January 20, 2008

From the Amazon review: How did this become legal?

The first amendment to the Constitution, is how. Yes, I know that doesn't explain why the homeless aren't selling handguns on busted card tables.

The only other unlicensed street sales with constitutional protection, albeit the State Constitution, is Christmas tree vendors at holiday time.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:14 PM on January 20, 2008

choice dumpster finds + Ebay = rent paid for boney a couple of times...

As for dealers being approached to buy unwanted books for resale, it's the same deal with vinyl records...grandma dies and suddenly somebody has a treasure trove of Montavanni to unload! They are old, they are records...they gotta be collectable, right?

clue: "Thriller" sold 25 millions copies...yes, it's an old record, but no, it is not rare or collectible. ditto Ms. Steele et el.

I've dumped dubious goods on generous dealers like RedEmma describes...almost felt guilty for a moment...
posted by bonefish at 12:16 PM on January 20, 2008

It just kills me to see books in the garbage . . .

I don't think there is anything special about books . . .

The evolution of norms regarding the destruction of books is worthwhile topic in its own right. Scarcity environments--political repression, expensive paper, limited literacy--fostered a set of values that can seem obsolete to people used to the delete button, datafloods and instant info-obsolescence.
posted by jefftrexler at 12:16 PM on January 20, 2008

When I think of outdated software manuals like 'welcome to Windows 3.0' or whatever and see them taking up shelf space at a used book store or on some peddler's table, I just can't figure any possible use for them...yes, they are books and as jefftrexler says we have vestigial values that make trashing them seem wrong...but do they have any value beyond being a doorstop or mulch? At least a romance novel does not go obsolete...
posted by bonefish at 12:26 PM on January 20, 2008

but lets face it, people do not discard things of objective worth.

Not in New York. I pulled three computers, loads of records, books, furniture, and meals. This place is disgusting in it's waste.
posted by iamck at 12:38 PM on January 20, 2008

I read a book very much like this once, but the various people the author followed each scavenged for specific items.

One story involved a man who looked for used books in the bins of some of the rich neighborhood bins. It relates how he found an old copy of Ulysses. He opened it to find it was first edition. Then on the next page found James Joyce signature. Then as he flipped it over found the back cover was tore off.

There was also a couple of guys who would dig up the backyards (with permission) of some of the older houses. Apparently people used to toss all kinds of things into their outhouse toilets. I think they were specifically looking for old glas bottles and jars.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:26 PM on January 20, 2008

Yeah, it is Jonmc's bookstore. And his customers too.

I could say more but it's his story to tell.
posted by konolia at 2:28 PM on January 20, 2008

Books are mirrors: if a bum looks in, no entrepreneur stares back.
posted by Curry at 2:28 PM on January 20, 2008

On preview it's the book MLIS posted about.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:28 PM on January 20, 2008

And since RedEmma is probably not going to self-link even in a comment, here is her blog. Good writing should be rewarded with an audience.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:55 PM on January 20, 2008

It just kills me to see books in the garbage, so I'm glad to see some of them being rescued.

We regard the Collyer Brothers as our patron saints at the used bookshop where I work (New England, ~350k volumes), although we're actually pretty careful about what we buy -- even so, regular blowtorching of most sections is necessary to avoid getting trapped in a book-lined booby trap. If it hasn't sold in the last 5 years, there had better be a good reason for hanging on to it because otherwise, dead stock chokes out the good stuff. I used to feel queasy at the sight of our dumpster filling with books, now I'm reassured by it. I don't doubt that I've accidentally chucked a few quality titles along the way, but it seems a small price to pay.

Having said that, it still kills me to see what some folks throw out.

For another cool perspective on book rescue, check out Aaron Lansky's Outwitting History and the National Yiddish Book Center.
posted by Kinbote at 2:59 PM on January 20, 2008

I work in a used record store and we get this all the time. Homeless or down and outs bring in CDs, DVDs and vinyl that they found or got in lots, cheap, from garage sales or whatever. In the warm months, I have one customer who comes in every Saturday night with between $10 and $70 worth of stuff.

Before clicking the link, I assumed this was going to be an article about people who sell books on the street. I once read a novel which had a main character who did that for a living (I can't recall the title but I think it was an Arthur Nersesian book--maybe Chinese Takeout). Apparently (at least in the book) there's a law in NYC that says that one doesn't need a permit to sell on the street if the only thing being sold is books. I found this both odd and fascinating and still wonder if it's true.
posted by dobbs at 3:27 PM on January 20, 2008

My Brooklyn Heights apartment building has a wonderful tradition of leaving old books on a windowsill in the lobby. I recently left an entire box with maybe thirty books in it, and I'm probably still breaking even. A few months ago I picked up Neuromancer, Do Andriods Dream of Electric Sheep and the entire Foundation series in one swoop.

I don't know how common this is, but it makes me much happier than lugging books into Manhattan for a few bucks.
posted by Bookhouse at 3:27 PM on January 20, 2008

It's the same at my building, Bookhouse. We have a bookshelf in the laundry room that always has a revolving stock. I just took down two shopping bags full of books that I've weeded out as I prepare for a move. I've gotten incredible things from that shelf... there must be an editor in out building because I've found numerous uncorrected proofs for books that eventually go on to be best sellers. I've read many things months before anyone else has ever heard of them.

Between my building shelf, the guys on the street, and Bookmooch, I end up buying only 2-3 books a year retail. And I find it much easier to release my books into the wild, than hoard them in dusty piles as I used to do.
posted by kimdog at 3:40 PM on January 20, 2008

I don't know how common this is, but it makes me much happier than lugging books into Manhattan for a few bucks.

Jeez, I wish it were more common -- I will not throw a book out, no matter how vile (and I'm talking Dan Brown vile here...Bill O'Reilly vile...Mein Kampf vile...I physically can't do it, unless the book's been floating in cat piss or something), so I have a large number of books I don't even want in my home, most of which are either unsaleable or not worth the effort of selling and shipping via eBay. An anonymous dumping ground where this stuff might find a loving home would be much appreciated.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:03 PM on January 20, 2008

Bookhouse: Same in my building as well; like kimdog, there's a table in the laundry room. Leave books and someone will pick them up in return.
posted by Stynxno at 5:08 PM on January 20, 2008

but do they have any value beyond being a doorstop or mulch?

I've actually been tempted to store up old windows/dos/etc. manuals because you'd be surprised how many companies still run on them. The Target I used to work on was running on OS/2 Warp through at least 2001. The place I work now uses a DOS based program to keep track of inventory.
posted by drezdn at 6:20 PM on January 20, 2008

BookWars is a fascinating documentary about these vendors in NYC.
posted by dbiedny at 6:42 PM on January 20, 2008

Another vote for RedEmma to get that novel out. Ah, cathartic rage...
posted by Football Bat at 8:09 PM on January 20, 2008

This thread has caused King Missile's song "Detachable Penis" to be stuck in my head all day. You know, the part where he finally finds his member for sale on the sidewalk in St. Mark's Place, presumably placed in between copies of Gail Sheehy's "Passages" and Alvin Toffler's "Future Shock"?

Living in a city without a sidewalk culture or a used bookstore culture, it's something I miss.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 8:50 PM on January 20, 2008

Mmph, the Strand is so overrated. My suburban enclave is awash with Half Price outlets, and they all kick the Strand's ass, if only because it doesn't feel like you're in imminent danger of dying in a bookalanche. And you can actually find things. Yeah, towering book stacks are romantic, but not for those of us with any kind of claustrophobia. And the crowds make true browsing near impossible--you are constantly elbowing or getting elbowed. Typical NYC attitude that a big used bookstore is somehow original and noteworthy, just because it's in Manhattan. People were always oohing and ahing over it, but I always ended up at the B&N down the street, because at least I could browse in peace without being crammed into a sardine can. Yikes.

In NYC's defense, I will say that people throw stuff out so much not to be wasteful, but because they can't afford to store and/or move it easily. If you have no car, getting something down to the Salvation Army is a real challenge. If it didn't fit in the moving van, you put it on the curb. Also, with the knowledge that there were so many scavengers, you usually figured someone would come and take it home. Much easier than schlepping it or trying to sell it yourself. I sold almost all my furniture to the girl upstairs, and filled up a van, and still had to leave stuff on the curb when I last moved.
posted by emjaybee at 8:50 PM on January 20, 2008

Well, this is topic after my own heart. Thanks for the post stbalbach and for the excellent comments RedEmma. If you lived in NYC I think we'd be good friends. Now reading your interesting and wonderfully written blog, I think we share many interests.

I've been a street vendor for 21 years in NYC, was a building super for 5 1/2 years, have scavenged, been given and sold second hand books on the street. There is some amazing treasure to be had in NYC garbage, or there was up until about 5 years ago, when the epidemic started. One word makes me stop dead in my tracks about second hand books or second hand anything for that matter these days, or storing anything second hand anywhere near where I live. I can handle funky but one thing, not. Bedbugs.

The bugs can live dormant for 18 months without feeding. A year and a half. It's truly a nightmare if one brings a single one of these creatures home or an egg laid in a second hand book. One bug can lay up to 350 eggs in a month.

Enough said. I'm getting the itchies just typing that.

A couple of scavenging anecdotes. This story is sad and so NYC. A super in a nearby building told me to come to the apartment of one of his tenants who had died of AIDS. In fact, the tenant and the tenant's lover both died of AIDS and their caretaker was dying of it and had abandoned the apartment. The tenant's family wanted nothing to do with him and all contents of the apartment were abandoned, to be put into the dumpster. The super wasn't at all interested in the stuff there. There was tons of vintage paper, especially fan magazines and hundred$ of beautifully organized 45's from the 1960's and 70's. I gathered them all up and took them to Mike Gallagher, who owns Gallagher Paper Collectibles. A big $mile.

There was a box with papers in it that were apparently birth certificate information. Was hustling too fast getting the boxes of magazines out to look carefully. So I kept the envelopes and thought one of these days I'm going to call this dead man's family and return his birth certificates to them. A month or so later I got on the phone to look up his family and tried to make out the family names on the certificates. A minute into speaking with the operator I realized they weren't his birth certificates at all. He'd bought original copies of birth certificates of several of the Rolling Stones in the early 1970's, when one could do that. They're from the hospitals, original copies with the government stamps on and everything. I've got Keith Richards', Brian Jones', Charlie Watts' and Bill Perks' (Bill Wyman's) birth certificates. Just an odd thing to have. No idea what to do with them.

Some other treasures of his I kept, like a piece of the Berlin Wall. Never knew this man but I still think of him, 10 years later and feel so sorry about his being abandoned like that.

The books I have in storage to sell are wonderful, lots of vintage stuff, coffee table books, likable. It's hard to scavenge books though. Just a few are quite heavy and a table's worth of books can weigh a couple hundred pounds. It needs a heavy duty portable table to display them, a strong (costly) handtruck to lug them back and forth. And they're not easy to display, they take up a lot of table space. Huffing and puffing to lug them up and down basement steps. Backbreaking.

Sometimes, when I've been vending, a super or neighbor will bring me boxes of books from somebody who has died. And it's so poignant going through their books. It's like reading their diary in their choices, childhood books, books their friends or family gave them and wrote on the inner flap something like "From Uncle Ed, who loves you so much". Sometimes it feels too personal, too private.

One of my tenants died. He'd been an acrobat for Barnum and Bailey for decades before 1940. He had circus ephemera that went to Gallagher's. I kept his huge leather trunk with drawers.

eBay and Craigslist have transformed the world of scavenging. The thing is that the homeless, who frequently find real treasure of all kinds, do not have computer access or a way to unload the things they are given or find. If I were to help the homeless I'd offer them eBay access and teach them how to be web entrepreneurs or offer them money for things that were sold.

A homeless vet worked for me for 13 years. He was always finding incredible things. His eyes combed the pavements. We'd be walking along together talking and he'd pick up things I walked right by. Like an antique pocket barometer. A vintage gold watch. He had a whole collection of single gold earrings.

Got an authentic Introducing the Beatles album out of the garbage.

Last tidbit, fun shelves to make out of books.
posted by nickyskye at 9:43 PM on January 20, 2008 [8 favorites]

Speaking of piles of rotting books
posted by Rumple at 11:03 PM on January 20, 2008

Rumple, in one of those images a tree is growing out of the books.
posted by nickyskye at 11:43 PM on January 20, 2008

What I learned from Bookwars is that some vendors will mark up what they've found in used paperback shops in the suburbs. I give what I no longer want to Housing Works.
posted by brujita at 4:47 AM on January 21, 2008

Mmph, the Strand is so overrated. My suburban enclave is awash with Half Price outlets, and they all kick the Strand's ass

If by "kick the Strand's ass" you mean "have more room to move around," I'm sure you're correct. If you mean anything related to quality of books available, don't make me laugh. I found a 1908 edition of Makaroff's superb Dictionnaire russe-français complet for a dollar at the Strand, just one of literally scores of hard-to-find books I've added to my library thanks to them. If you're claustrophobic and can't stand shopping there, that's too bad, but knocking the Strand because of it is pure sour grapes.
posted by languagehat at 6:48 AM on January 21, 2008

dbiedny, thanks for the Bookwars movie link. I just ordered a copy, at $11.98 (including shipping) that''s a pretty cheap deal for a brand new DVD. I'd spend that in gas and parking and ticket to see it at a local theater (if it were playing). Cheap. Seems appropriate.
posted by stbalbach at 7:03 AM on January 21, 2008

Yeah, I work there, unloading the books these guys bring in. Some of them are nice enough. Some of them are pretty damned irritating. The 'Tommy Books and Leprechaun' mentioned in the article were actually banned from the store a few days later because other people waiting online outside to sell saw them 'cleaning' their books by spitting on them and vigorously rubbing it in. I'd been handling their books for months. Bleah. The 'Neil' in the article, I know as well, he's nice enough but he tends to spend all the money he makes from us over at OTB, so we've nicknamed him 'The Horseplayer.' There's others, too. Some interesting, some just messed up, but it beats working in an office.

(note: the clerk tipped in the story is not me (although I did meet the lady who wrote the story), but he's a friend. I have gotten tips from these guys as well, and other people selling. At first I felt bad about it, thinking 'I can't take these guys money,' but my boss explained that 1) you're insulting them if you don't and 2) you need the money, too.)
posted by jonmc at 6:46 PM on January 21, 2008

I physically can't do it, unless the book's been floating in cat piss or something

that was you? Dude....
posted by jonmc at 6:50 PM on January 21, 2008

I work in a used bookstore in the bay area and in the bookbuying trade these people are called scouts. Some scouts are just retarded and keep bringing in the same books all the time without any regards to quality or condition, but some scouts are sophisticated and will look up a books isbn on abe or amazon to check the price while on the street, garage sale or flea market. This is where the money is, but most people aren't book scouts and simply decide to clean house or move and just get rid of their books, I have seen people with outrageously expensive books that they were going to throw out and at the last minute took them down to the local bookstore just to see if they could get a couple bucks. So I am sure that great books end up in the garbage. The problem is that most fiction, unless its really old or rare just isn't worth that much since the advent of the internet. Go look at the used prices on amazon, often times used books sell for under 5 bucks and an amazing amount sell for one penny. But there still are expensive books out there you just have to develop a sense for it. It can be really fun to look through books at a garage sale and I often find good, solid books, but truth be told my store has a really liberal borrowing policy so I mostly just rent nowadays. This is a much cooler shelf made of books.
posted by wolfewarrior at 1:02 AM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

brujita, Great tip. Here's the link to the HousingWorks Used Book Cafe site in SoHo. Wow. Mahogany paneled interior. Got to check their place out.

Housing Works Used Book Café
126 Crosby Street
New York, NY 10012
(212) 334-3324
Subway: W, R to Prince; B, D, F, V to Broadway/Lafayette; 6 to Bleecker

They've got baked goods, soups (fall & winter only), the best coffee & tea below 14th Street, not to mention a great selection of beer and wine! The café is run completely by a staff of volunteers

They have really beautiful things on auction, sumptuously photographed. I want a website like theirs! Now that's the way to sell secondhand goodies. Seems like people offer for a limited amount of time their store window, or a part of it, as a donation, as well as thrift shops. What a good idea.

Looking forward to watching Bookwars as well, had no idea there was a movie about the gritty world of New York City street booksellers exposed in a remarkable story that chronicles their lives and loves and their unique perspectives on life. And it was directed by a street bookseller. That's awesome.
posted by nickyskye at 10:14 AM on January 22, 2008

Yeah, Housing Works is a wonderful place; I found some great stuff there, and they're a pleasure to buy from.
posted by languagehat at 11:04 AM on January 22, 2008

omg wolfewarrior, that is a great shelf. Love it. Thanks.
posted by nickyskye at 11:09 AM on January 22, 2008

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