Good Riddance to Bad Reads: A Two-Bit Foray into the Used-Book Biz

Cheap Shot: I'm Cheap, so I Gave It a Shot

September 12, 2011By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
There’s gold in those old books. Well, maybe silver. A little copper, at least. But mostly paper.

Back in the 1980s when I had just moved to Paris, I used to go sell a batch of unwanted books every August. This was the result of a concurrence of circumstances:

1. I used to (and still do) buy a lot of books and magazines, so my apartment was (is) constantly under threat of being submerged under a slow-moving glacier of publications. If some evil science-fiction radiation experiment ever brings wood pulp back to life as vengeance-seeking zombie trees, I will have to start sleeping with a chainsaw by the bed.

2. Unlike the other 59,999,999 people in France, I did not (and still don’t) take my vacation in August.

3. Because everyone in point 2 was gone, I had less work than usual.

4. So I had time to pack up some of the things in point 1 and take them to Gibert, the stationery chain that offers cash for used books. They claim that they will at least consider any type of tome in any language, although I doubt that they pay much for Icelandic lichen guides.

It was a summer ritual: every year I would trudge off to Gibert lugging a suitcase laden with books. Some were in good shape, some in bad shape, some hardback, some paperback, some in French, some in English, etc. Back then, the buy-back counter was manned by a guy who would sort through the books really fast, chucking them into one of three bins: accepted hardback, accepted paperback or rejected. Each accepted book was worth a flat fee, something like five francs for a paperback, 15 for a hardback and maybe 20 or 30 for a nice coffee-table book. Usually, all but maybe two of my books would be accepted, and I would walk away with about 200 francs, the rough equivalent of €30, which at the time was a reasonable amount of money for the number of minutes and Métro tickets invested.

This year I found myself one warm August day in the same situation, facing both a half-day of work and a dust-gathering, space-consuming (and potentially flesh-eating) pile of books that I was never going to read again. So I decided to revive my old tradition and haul some of them to the nearest Gibert.

When I arrived, the line at the buy-back desk was about eight deep, and two clerks were behind the counter. Based on previous experience, I figured that it would take no more than 10 minutes to get through that many transactions. Little did I know: the information age has come to the used book business. Now you’re required to show a photo ID and register in the Gibert database before being able to sell any books. It’s some kind of national law, presumably to make stolen goods traceable – as part of the government’s widely heralded crackdown on all those marauding gangs of book thieves. Once the seller is in the system, the clerk scans the barcode on each of the submitted volumes and checks the house software to see if they have any residual commercial value. The ones that do are then carefully examined for wear and their price is calculated according to some sort of intricate digitally assisted process. All this takes time.

I ended up waiting for well over an hour. This was hands-down the slowest-moving line I have ever endured in my life. While standing there stiller than a not-yet-zombified oak, I had plenty of time to notice that all of the people in front of me were getting most of their books rejected. Hah-hah, I thought – serves them right for having Philistine taste and trying to resell their lowbrow pop lit and graphic novels.

I also had plenty of time to reflect on the fact that I did not have a proper ID on me. I do not walk around with my passport or French resident card because if I ever lose them they are, respectively, a pain and an excruciating torture to replace. I do, however, carry my press card, which has a photo (and is accepted by the post office and tax office as proof of identity), and a photocopy of my resident card. Also, the line was so glacially sluggish there was no way I could make it home and back and get through the whole process before closing time, so I stayed put, hoping that this wouldn’t be a problem.

It was a problem. When I finally got up to the counter, Nadine (I’d been waiting so long that I had overheard her name and expect to see a lot of her when the undead wood gets to me and my life flashes before my eyes) wasn’t sure if my IDs were good enough. She asked the coworker next to her if she could accept a photocopy, didn’t get a conclusive answer, hemmed and hawed, and more or less told me that it wasn’t possible – which of course was tantamount to telling me that I had just wasted a measurable percentage of my life waiting to be granted the benefit of her services. And then, in an impressive burst of initiative, she called her superior.

Has anyone else ever noticed that many Parisians have a pronounced tendency to “accentuate the negative”? Nadine had a simple question to which she simply did not know the answer, but instead of asking her manager, “Can I accept a photocopy?” she gave it all the pessimistic spin she could:

“I have a guy here with a press card and a copy of his resident card, so I can’t register him, right? It’s impossible, right? There’s nothing I can do, right? There’s no way, right? Right? Right? Huh? Oh? Hmmm. Really? OK…”

As it turned out, there was a way. Right. Obviously disappointed that she had failed to disappoint me, she keyed my ID info into the computer and began examining my books.

I had filled a fairly large suitcase with luxury-edition hardbacks, all in good condition, and was expecting them to fetch a fair piece of change. Hah-hah, Nadine would have thought if she could read my mind.

Other than taking what seemed like 40 times as long, here’s how the transaction compared with my experience 20-some years ago:

• Instead of having all but two of my books accepted, this time I had all but two rejected.

• But those two were good-quality recent releases and turned out to be worth… €30!

• So I got as much money as before, except that it’s no longer worth the time, tedium and tendinitis.

But it was good to put a little dent in the literary flotsam flooding my apartment. If you ever find yourself with excess reading matter and two or three hours to kill, or at least maim, this is still a pretty good way to pick up a little extra Byrrh money. But remember: the line is slow, so be sure to bring a book.


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.

Follow C’est Ironique on Facebook and Twitter.

What do you think? Send a comment:

Your comment is subject to editing. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe for free!

The Paris Update newsletter will arrive in your inbox every Wednesday, full of the latest Paris news, reviews and insider tips.