I make a living buying and selling used books. I browse the racks of thrift stores and library book sales using an electronic bar-code scanner. I push the button, a red laser hops about, and an LCD screen lights up with the resale values. It feels like being God in his own tiny recreational casino; my judgments are sure and simple, and I always win because I have foreknowledge of all bad bets. The software I use tells me the going price, on Amazon Marketplace, of the title I just scanned, along with the all-important sales rank, so I know the book’s prospects immediately. I turn a profit every time.
I’m pretty sure I first heard about the practice of shopping for books with laser scanners in a story on NPR, which, as I recall it, disparaged their use as classless. And, really, it is precisely this. The book merchant of the high-cultural imagination is a literate compleat and serves the literate. He doesn’t need a scanner, because he knows more than the scanner knows. I fill a different niche — I deal in collectible or meaningful books only by accident. I’m not deep, but I am broad. My customer is anyone who needs a book that I happen to find and can make money from.
My economics side says this is a good thing: connecting buyers with their desired purchases. My bibliophile side says this is somehow morally wrong . . . or if not precisely wrong, then tainted or shady. I’m not sure how to reconcile my feelings.