Why sell to half-price books?

Laura and I unpacked all our books yesterday and realized that we have a shelf-space crisis in our new house, so we decide to try selling some to Half-Price Books. We picked out three boxes of books, probably around 40 books total (though maybe more, I didn’t count). The were mostly hardbound, and many fairly technical, which according to HPB’s FAQ are the kind of books that fetch the most. We carted them down to the Bellevue HPB location, and I waited 30-40 minutes for their buyer to assess the haul. The final offer? Twelve dollars. That comes out to something like 30c per book.

Now, I’m a big believer in the free market, especially for things like this, so I can’t criticize HPB for trying to pay as little as possible for their inventory. What I can’t figure out is this: Why would anyone would ever bother to sell them books in the first place? The HPB is located about 4 miles from my house, and gas here is $4.40 per gallon, so just the cost of driving there ate up about $1 of my gross. Counting driving and waiting, the trip took about an hour. I specially selected books that I thought had a chance of being valuable, rather than just grabbing the many tatttered pulp paperbacks in my library, that probably added an extra hour to the process. If I value my time at Washington’s minimum wage of $8/hour, the whole trip was a net loss for me. I would have been better off just taking the oldest and most tattered books from my library and throwing them away. It would have gained me just as much shelf space with far less time and hassle.

I can’t figure out how selling to HPB ever comes out to a rational thing to do.  If you have a few high-value books (e.g. first editions or collectors editions) HPB will probably offer more than I got, but you’d still be better off selling them individually as an Amazon seller.  If you have just the average haul of old books, HPB will offer you peanuts.  I get a sense that a lot of their customers buy books there, read them, and then sell them back. If the books they buy are high-value, then maybe the fetch more on resale, but it’s still a net loss for the consumer. That’s certainly a nice deal for HPB, getting to resell the same book over and over, profiting each time. But for the reader, it seems like it would be far more economical to just use a library. At least I have the satisfaction of not having recycled any of the $12 back into HPB’s till. I just took the cash and left.

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Subprime explained

Here is  the clearest explanation of the subprime mess I’ve seen yet. [Click through to the larger version to read the text.]

Back in the 412

So, for those who don’t already know, Laura, Maggie, and I moved back to Pittsburgh from Austin 6 weeks ago. Laura has a new job here, and I’ve been writing the final chapters of my dissertation and looking for a job. [I’ve been meaning to blog about it for a while, and I was most recently reminded to when TypePad asked me to update my credit card info (with my new address) so they could keep billing me. I figured if I’m going to keep paying for this blog, I should post to it at least once a year.]

It’s been nice being back, nicer than I expected in many ways, but there were some interesting and unexpected contrasts with Austin (other than the weather). I’ll try and post about them in more detail, but here are a couple quick notes (hopefully to remind me for later):

  • The people are really friendly to strangers here. In Austin, we barely had any contact with our neighbors in any of the places where we lived. Here we met our neighbors from both sides and across the street on the day we moved in. It’s also much easier to strike up a conversation with a random stranger in line at the store, or whatever.
  • So much smoking! I can’t believe how many smokers there are here, and how much public smoking there is. This is something we noticed even coming back for xmas before the Austin smoking ordinance was enacted.
  • What’s with Pittsburgh’s inferiority complex? Like PIttsburghers, long-time Austinites often have an irrational love for their city, but it’s hard to imagine the Sienna Miller thing taking up so much news time there.
  • I’d forgotten how pretty the fall colors are here!

I’m sure I’ll think of more. Hopefully, I’ll find more time to blog, though it’s been pretty hard, with everything else going on.

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Free voice mail helps the homeless

This is one of the cooler charity projects I’ve seen. It’s a project that allows homeless shelters and food kitchens to give free voicemail boxes to homeless people. It’s great to see people who’ve actually looked at the problems of the homeless and come up with a solution that addresses a real problem that faces homeless people who are trying to get back on their feet. How can you get a job, when you don’t have a telephone number to put on the application?

This also points out the importance of providing basic infrastructure to the economically disadvantaged. I often hear these arguments like “why are we giving [insert your favorite hi-tech item here] to poor people, when what they really need is food!” Sure they need food, but maybe the reason they’re hungry is that they don’t access to the infrastructure necessary to feed themselves. A smart analysis might yield items that are actually more important than food itself. “Teach a man to fish…” and all that. Cool.

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Paul Graham on What We Can’t Say

One of my favorite web essayists, Paul Graham, has a new essay: What You Can’t Say. He brings up the idea of moral fashion things that we believe only because that’s what the people of our times believe, and wonders what things we believe now will seem ridiculous when viewed historically from the future. His idea is that the things that we believe solely out of fashion are often the things that people get in trouble for denying — heresy, blasphemy, sacrilege, and their modern equivalents:

What scares me is that there are moral fashions too. They’re just as arbitrary, and just as invisible to most people. But they’re much more dangerous. Fashion is mistaken for good design; moral fashion is mistaken for good. Dressing oddly gets you laughed at. Violating moral fashions can get you fired, ostracized, imprisoned, or even killed.

If like me, you’re hoping for him to give some examples of current moral fashions, to list some ideas that are likely wrong but that can’t be questioned in our society, you’ll be disappointed. The essay discusses these kinds of ideas entirely in the abstract, or with references to moral fashions from the past. It’s an interesting essay nonetheless. A choice quote:

Although moral fashions tend to arise from different sources than fashions in clothing, the mechanism of their adoption seems much the same. The early adopters will be driven by ambition: self-consciously cool people who want to distinguish themselves from the common herd. As the fashion becomes established they’ll be joined by a second, much larger group, driven by fear. This second group adopt the fashion not because they want to stand out but because they are afraid of standing out.

So if you want to figure out what we can’t say, look at the machinery of fashion and try to predict what it would make unsayable. What groups are powerful but nervous, and what ideas would they like to suppress? What ideas were tarnished by association when they ended up on the losing side of a recent struggle? If a self-consciously cool person wanted to differentiate himself from preceding fashions (e.g. from his parents), which of their ideas would he tend to reject? What are conventional-minded people afraid of saying?

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