On Book Scouting

This is a nice story in The New Yorker about Wayne Pernu, a book scout. His day consists of scouring ads and going out to buy used books, and then selling them. He scouts almost every day.

Though his competitors in the book-scout field rely on bar-code scanners to determine the value of titles, Pernu can tell within a few seconds of taking a book into his hands whether it’s worth anything. “A lot of times I have no idea what I’m buying, but I do know that I should buy it,” he says. His intuition has served him well. Over the years, he has unearthed from piles of unwanted books a signed, first-edition copy of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” (worth two thousand dollars) and two signed, limited-edition, slip-cased copies of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Crusade in Europe” (worth between three and five thousand dollars each). And when a scanner-dependent Honduran gang established an aggressive book-buying operation at his favorite thrift-store haunt a few years ago, he survived because the machines know nothing about books published prior to 1972. “I can’t tell you the gorgeous, beautiful books that they just throw back, like an eighteenth-century science book with colored plates of butterflies and bumblebees,” he says. “They’ll throw back thousand-dollar books because they can’t look them up.”

Pernu learned the book trade from the other side of the buying table. In 1989, when he moved to Oregon, he worked a few years as a buyer at Powell’s Books before striking out on his own. He continues to work almost exclusively with the Portland-based book shop, although he could earn much more selling on eBay and Amazon. Pernu says he’d rather spend his time hunting for books than entering data and going to the post office. He’s currently one of the store’s chief independent scouts, turning over between two and three thousand titles per month, about ninety per cent of the books he offers. Other scouts resell about fifty per cent of their stock. According to Powell’s’ used-book buying-table manager, Jay Wheeler, professional scouts like Pernu, who receive up to thirty per cent of books’ resale value, account for less than five per cent of the buying table’s purchases. “There was a time, years ago, when we had so many scouts we couldn’t keep track of them,” Wheeler says. But now there are fewer than twenty.

It’s always refreshing to read about careers that are still thriving, even if they are considered “a dying breed” by the public at large.

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(hat tip: Andrew Sullivan)

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