In a sea of used books, Maryland bookseller rescues everything it can

01/22/2020| Daniel Leaderman

In a sea of used books, Maryland bookseller rescues everything it can

01/22/2020 | Daniel Leaderman

Strolling among the rows and rows and rows of shelves in the Wonder Book warehouse in Frederick, it can be difficult to appreciate the scale of what you’re seeing. The facility covers about 130,000 square feet and contains about 2.5 million volumes, said owner and founder Charles Roberts.

For book lovers, the experience may even be a touch intoxicating—not only are there more books than you could read in a lifetime, there are probably more books than you could read in several lifetimes.

The chain of used bookstores has three physical stores—in Gaithersburg, Hagerstown, and Frederick—and does big business selling books on the internet; the sea of shelves in the warehouse mostly store the inventory for these online sales.

Roberts says people occasionally ask him if they can browse the warehouse, but it’s not practical. The books aren’t shelved in any discernible order: cookbooks, histories, classic novels, memoirs, technical guides, and spy thrillers are all mixed together. But each row and shelf has a code; when orders come in, the computer tells the employees exactly where to find each item.

There’s a separate, smaller room of collectable books—mostly older volumes that will sell for $75 or up, Roberts said. “We have enough training to know which old books are valuable, and which old books are just old books,” Roberts said.

Roberts became a bookseller almost by accident; he took a part-time job at a used bookstore called Alcove Books in Montgomery County in 1975 as he prepared to start graduate school. Soon he was hooked, and opened a store of his own—the first Wonder Book location—in Frederick in 1980. Years later, when Alcove Books closed, Wonder Book took over that location in Gaithersburg.

So where do the 2.5 million used books in the Wonder Book warehouse come from? Well, from everywhere, really.

Wonder Book takes leftovers from charity sales at libraries and schools, staff will make housecalls when people are ready to sell their collections or those of deceased relatives, and the retail stores buy books 363 days a year—they’re only closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas, said Roberts.

“We pretty much buy everything, and bring it to the warehouse,” Roberts said. The first step is “triaging” the boxes and donations, the items Roberts and his team refer to as “raw books,” but also includes numerous DVDs, CDs, VHS tapes, and even vinyl records.

The ones that will go to the retail stores are separated first—after nearly 40 years in the business, they’ve got a good sense of what will sell at those locations—and the defective or damaged books are removed to be recycled as pulp. The plastic media are also sorted, and what isn’t sellable is also separated to be recycled.

Some children’s books are separated to be given for free to teachers or shelters; others are put in large bins to be sold in bulk overseas as a low-cost teaching aid for English learners. A customer in the Philippines buys all of Wonder Books scrap vinyl records. “I don’t know what he does with them,” Roberts says.

The remaining books left are scanned into the computer system, which tries to sell them on the internet. The computer knows if there are already too many copies of a book in the system—the secondhand market is already saturated with bestsellers by writers like Nora Roberts, for example—and automatically puts a competitive price to the rest of the books in several currencies, including U.S. and Canadian dollars, Euros, and British pounds.

Then the books are listed on more than a dozen online bookselling platforms and are assigned to their randomized shelf in the warehouse to wait for customers all over the world to click “BUY.”

Roberts remembers the very first book the store sold online: it was about cattle. In the mid-1990s, bookstores all over were doing great business, and selling things on the internet was still a strange and new idea. But on the recommendation of his brother, Roberts picked an assortment of 40 of the most unusual titles he could find and listed them online.

The first sale was a slim volume about the history of Holstein cattle farming in Frederick County—something no one would every pick up if they were browsing at the store—to a Holstein cattle breeder in the United Kingdom who bought any book on the subject he could find.

The rest, as they say, is history.

“Sometimes we get thousands of orders a day,” Roberts said. “The business continues to grow.”

There’s clearly a robust market for books that people want to read, but touring the Wonder Book warehouse is also like taking a peek into a secret world—and seeing what happens to the books no one wants to read. It can be easy to forget that every book for sale at a used bookshop is there because the store thinks someone might want to read it; but those volumes are just the beginning.

“Ninety-nine percent of old books are just old books,” Roberts said. “They don’t have any reading value or collectors’ value.” They may be by forgotten authors, they may be obsolete textbooks and histories, or they may be part of an incomplete set.

As part of what they call “book rescue,” the Wonder Book team buys these books, too, and to keep them from being recycled as pulp—a fate reserved for only the most damaged, unsalvageable books—they’re repurposed as decor and sold as “Books by the Foot.”

Some customers, such as interior decorators or set dressers, just need books that look a certain way, regardless of their content. So if you’re looking for books with yellow spines to fill exactly two feet of shelf space in a photo shoot or store display, Wonder Book can provide that.

They sell books by the foot in numerous colors; in color patterns with names like “whispering willows” and “driftwood”; by subject, such as one recent order for a customer who needed several feet of Christmas-themed cookbooks; and by age, for clients who just need books that look antique.

Is it the fate the authors of these volumes would have hoped for work? Perhaps not. But it’s better than the landfill or being shredded to pulp.

“It’s a great way to recycle books as books,” Roberts said. “They get one more shot at life.”

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