Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Pound for Pound, Dime by Dime, Buying Low and Selling High

I first started collecting books when I was a kid with a paper route. Needless to say, my $10 weekly earnings didn't get me very far.

I continued collecting books when I was teenager frying burgers at McDonald's. $30 a week doesn't get you too far either.

Now I work full-time in a library, but often feel like an indentured servant. A 2% raise is quickly eaten up by a 3% increase in health insurance. A 1% bonus doesn't even cover the new daily parking fee. So this paycheck isn't getting me anywhere either...yet I still continue to collect books.

That's because, through all these years, I've always tried to find ways to earn a little extra money to afford my book-buying habit.

One of my first methods involved newspapers. Every day I would deliver papers to the customers on my route, then at the end of the week, I'd see those same newspapers sticking out of trashcans, waiting for garbage pick-up. Where do old newspapers go to die? I never really thought about it until the day I saw some Boy Scouts gathering old copies of the Detroit News and Free Press for a paper drive. I did a little investigating and discovered there were actually people who would pay you for old, used newspapers. Before long, I was pulling newspapers out of trashcans and selling them by the pound.

Here's how it worked: on the night before the trash was picked up in a neighborhood, I would enlist one of my parents to drive me down the designated streets. Every time we passed a house with garbage cans at the curb, I'd jump out of the car, grab the newspapers from the trash, and throw them in the trunk of our car. When the trunk was full, we'd go home and I'd stack the papers in the garage. It wasn't long till I'd created a map of the area, showing which neighborhoods had their trash picked up on Monday mornings, Tuesdays mornings, etc., so every night I was out gathering papers. Two or three times a week, we'd load the car up with papers -- in the trunk, in the backseat, on the floor -- and drive to Consolidated Fabrics, a little factory that recycled old papers into cloth and newsprint. We'd pull onto a giant scale and then wait while someone in an office up above weighed our vehicle, then waved us on. Then we'd drive to an outbuilding in back and throw all our old newspapers onto a conveyor belt that went up into another building. At the top of this conveyor, cigar-smoking men in thick gloves would sort through the papers. Inevitably, some other piece of garbage would turn up among the newspaper (we were getting them from trashcans, after all!) and one of the men would grab the apple core or crushed milk carton or empty tuna can and throw it at our heads, shouting, "We don't want your stinkin' garbage here!" After we'd gotten rid of all the papers, we'd drive our now-empty car back onto the scale to be weighed. The second weight was subtracted from the first weight to see how many pounds of newspaper we had delivered. The amount they paid differed by the day, but was usually in the area of $2.10/100 lbs. I'd run up a set of metal stairs and the man inside would hand me a receipt and ten or eleven or twelve dollars -- most of which went into my "Book Fund." ...That is, until the struts wore out on the car due to hauling several tons of newspapers around every week. Then I had to find a new way to earn money.

A few years passed. I still needed money for books. And I was still fascinated by the idea of getting paid for something you just picked up for free on the street, like old newspapers. Then Michigan passed a bottle refund law and I found a new way to pay for books. Everywhere you looked there were empty bottles and cans on the street -- just waiting to be picked up for ten cents a container. So every evening after dinner, I'd go to the local park with a Hefty bag and pick up all the bottles and cans I could find. If I was lucky there might be a Little League baseball game going on, with dozens of parents tossing back Cokes and beer. I'd crawl around under the bleachers and pick up their empties. Occasionally someone would call me over to give me their can, though I always felt like Oliver Twist standing in front of them holding open my sack while they tipped their head back for one last gulp, before dropping their can in. I will also never forget the woman who beckoned me over and, just before giving me her can, smirked and drop the end of her lit cigarette inside. I still took it. I was desperate. I was between jobs that summer. Shortly after, I received a letter from a book dealer selling first editions of I, JUAN DE PAREJA; ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY; MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, and THE SLAVE DANCER...all for $250. MRS. FRISBY alone was worth more than that, so I was determined to buy them. $250 dollars. 2500 cans. But can by can, dime by dime, I did it. And I especially treasure those books, still sitting on my shelf, because I know how hard it was to earn them.

In recent years, I've been replenishing my Book Fund by doing a little gambling. No, not at the casinos or lottery counter. But I read somewhere that the way to wealth was "buying low and selling high." I think they were talking about stocks, but I found a way of applying it to books. If I'm in a used bookstore or rummage sale and see a collectable children's book on sale for $5 or $10, I'll buy and then try to resell it (to a dealer, or maybe on eBay) at a higher price. I had great luck with this for many years, and often had a moderate amount of money in my Book Fund. However, over the last couple years I've found it harder and harder to find inexpensively-priced books...and books offered on eBay aren't selling for as much as they did in past.

So my Book Fun dwindles and I haven't come up with any new schemes for the future. Still, with spring on the horizon maybe the snow will melt to reveal a landscape of empty refundable bottles and cans.

One thousand bottles of beer in the snow,
One thousand bottles of beer
Pick each one up and my Book Fund will grow
One thousand bottles of beers in the snow.


Toña said...

Could you have imagined, when writing this entry, that a housewife in Oregon would thoroughly enjoy reading about your adventures (while bouncing a 4 month old on her knee)? Reading your blog is a highlight in my sleep deprived nights. Thank you!

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Wow, what a nice thing to say! Thanks so much for reading my blog and all best to you and your 4-month-old!


buy jeans said...

The permanence of the internet makes this kind of joke even more amusing. I just saw this today, and it wasn't until the photo was MENTIONED in the post that I looked at it closely and scrolled back up to the date to see if it was an AF.