Last weekend I worked at my church’s Attic Sale, which is a must-do event for any writer because you would be pretty hopeless if you couldn’t come up with a book’s worth of stories about the things that go on at this sale. The drama! The sale starts at 10 and by 9:30 there is a line of people literally pushing against the door to the church, desperate to get in. Every item has value to someone, and people often tell you the story of why it is significant to them. This ratty blouse reminds them of something her mother wore in the sixties, or this tea cup belongs in a museum. Lots and lots of little babies that people carry facing outward, so you have a parade of big soulful eyes staring at you as you write up the receipts. And the cutest little white dog I’ve ever seen (sorry Spencer) and someone left it on a table and it just sat there and shook. But then the owner came back. And ham salad sandwiches. I’ve noticed in my classes that people tap into some of their best writing when they write about smell, and there were people at this sale who were holding up the ham sandwich and sniffing at it as though it could bring back a lost time.
Anyway, I was a puddle through most of this sale, but that’s not the point. The interesting thing was that I was working in the book department (a promotion—last year I was in the children’s clothes department and was a disaster because I got tired of refolding things and just chatted most of the day). The interesting thing about the book department is that best sellers don’t sell. We had stacks and stacks of books and I (or possibly someone else) hit on the idea of separating out the best sellers (Patterson, King, Cornwall, Forsythe) and lining them up on a separate table. Alphabetically! The idea was that people would snap up these books. Brand new they would sell for more than $20 apiece, but we were just charging $2, and they were all in almost brand new condition.
Then there was a separate section of “book club” books. These were the trade paperbacks that sell, new, for around $14. A lot of Barbara Kingsolver here and Ann Patchett and you know who I mean. (No copies of The Fiction Class, but I hope that’s because no one from the church wanted to get rid of their copy.) And here is the moral of the story, which is that these books kept selling and the hardcovers didn’t.
Periodically I would look over at the hardcover table, which represented thousands of dollars worth of books, and probably millions of dollars worth of advances, and I would cogitate. Obviously someone had gone off and bought these books in the first place, and even if James Patterson’s 1000th book is not as good as his 17th, it has to be a reasonably good read. Lots of people are buying it new. By the second day of the sale we had marked the books down to $1, and by the end of the second day we were giving out bags that you could fill up for $2. And still, when the sale ended, the book club rack was almost empty, and all those hardcovers were still sitting there. (Goodwill took them.)
What does it all mean? Perhaps people who read new hardcovers don’t go to attic sales. (More men, perhaps?) Perhaps the pleasure of owning a hardcover is in owning something new? I don’t know the answer, in case you’re wondering. What do you think?