Like an endless river of books floating downstream

The Half Price Books recycling bins were always loaded with treasures.
For over a decade I ran a 25-cent Used Books vending table on Telegraph Ave.  It was a great gig.  I went through thousands and thousands of books every week.  I described it as:  “selling books by the pound.”  I had dozens of sources for my books. But one of my prime sources were the 5 or 6 recycling bins that Half Price Books put out on the curb twice a week.

I’d wait until Half Price Books closed for the night at 11.  Then I’d pull up with my huge Berkeley Bowl shopping cart and start loading up with books.  The bins would be loaded to the brim with unbelievable treasures.  Everything from last year’s best sellers to the classics of literature to $100 coffee table books.  As well as plenty of drek, too.  The trick was to sift through every book as quickly as possible, all the while making the lightning quick decision with each book:  “Will this book sell for a quarter?”



I had a basic system:  Paperbacks in one stack. Hardcovers in another.  And coffee table books in another.  I’d hit the bin with the least amount of book in it first.  And then I’d precariously stack the crap books that I didn’t want alongside the bin.  Once I had an empty bin, that simplified things.  Because I could then take the reject books from the next bin and just toss them into the empty bin.  And I’d methodically work my way down the line of bins like that.

Further complicating things:  Half Price Books tore the covers off of all the books.  The reason they did that was:  If they DIDN’T, book hustlers would find the books and try to re-sell them at all the other used book stores.  Which was a tremendous waste of time for the book stores.  Having the same used books boomeranging back at them dozens of times. .  .  So, as I’m sorting through all the books I’m also doing a mix-and-match, trying to find the covers that go with the books (later I’d scotch-tape the covers back on the books).

A rare shot of me at my 25-cent book stand. Note the industrial-size tape-dispenser to my left.

I had it down to a science.  Usually it would take me about 2 hours to go through all the bins.  And by one in the morning the 6th bin would finally be empty.  Then I’d dump all the reject books stacked alongside the first bin into the now-empty sixth bin.  Having come full-circle.  Quickly clean up any other messes I might have made, leave the corner spotless, and trudge off with my jam-packed shopping cart, bungee-corded with the over-flowing books, like a noble hunter returning from the forest with his hard-earned treasures.

But there could sometimes be complications.  Worst of all was when passerbys happened to notice me:  “HEY, LOOK AT ALL THEM GREAT FREE BOOKS!!”  And they’d inject themselves like a monkey wrench right into the middle of my careful organized machine.  And total chaos and confusion would ensue (so much for my “system”).

One guy I particularly dreaded was this extroverted street person with a guitar who, in his insatiable need for attention, would call out to every person who passed by and invite them to join in on the fun.  Before you knew it, it’s this huge party with books getting tossed around everywhere and my nice, neat piles becoming strewn across the sidewalk.  Plus, inevitably, a huge mess for me to clean up afterwards.

Adding insult to injury, it used to drive the manager at Half Price Books into a frenzy.  Because people would get indignant at THEM when they realized all these books were being trashed.  “That’s just, like, WAY uncool, Half Price Books, taking all of this great literature and dumping them into the garbage!!  I, after all, am a book-lover!!”  They just didn’t understand the reality of the book biz. It’s like the day-old produce at the grocery store.  They have limited shelf space, and they have to make room for the endless waves of new books.

So the manager got pissed at ME for drawing all the attention to the operation.  So she began dumping liquids of unknown origin on the bins of books in a futile attempt at discouraging me.  But I was making a hundred bucks a day off those book. So nothing less than an armed guard or a court-ordered subpoena would have kept me from those bins.

Anyways, this morning I happened to pass by those recycling bins.  And it all came back, like the memory of a half-forgotten pleasant dream.  All those nights standing out there by myself on a lonely street corner . . . Well after midnight under the moon and the streetlights.  The streets quiet and peaceful, for once. As I sifted through all the immortal words from all the great and non-great authors down through the ages of history.

One odd and ironic epilogue to my 25 Cent Books vending table. When Ken Sarachan — the businessman who owns half of Telegraph Avenue — bought the vacant Cody’s Books building, I decided it was time to retire my 25 Cent Book table. But I told Ken how much my customers loved my vending table. And I recommended to him — half-jokingly — that he should re-open the Cody’s building as a 25 Cent bookstore. Would you believe it? He actually took my advice and opened up a 25 cent book store . . .  I swear. I must be the only homeless bum in the history of homeless bums where multi-millionaire businessmen actually take my savvy business advice. Go figure.


3 thoughts on “Like an endless river of books floating downstream

    1. Once or twice a cop stopped by to check up on me. Sometimes I’d be out there at 2 in the morning, so it looked a little odd. They’d see that I was organized and never left a mess. So they left me alone.

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