Death Row for Books
Finnegan’s Wake: toss it. The Color Purple: toss it. The Old Man and the Sea: fuck it, toss it. One Hundred Years of Solitude: nope. As I Lay Dying: toss it. Some shitty best-selling self-help book from last year: ding, ding, ding, we have a winner. Keep it. Shelve it. Next.
Such was my job in the book warehouse (until we started focusing on enema kits, but I’ll get to that later). Libraries from across the country sent us books they’d cleared from their shelves, and we scanned them through our system to see if they were worth reselling online. Any books that weren’t worth reselling (according to our system), which was most of them, we tossed into large cardboard dumpsters. Once filled, we lined up the cardboard dumpsters in long, forlorn rows that snaked through dusty aisles of metal scaffolding. Mounds upon mounds of old library books waited like death row inmates to get carted off to a recycling center.
The job ad that attracted me and many of my coworkers said, “Book lovers wanted!” But really the work would’ve been better suited to someone who hated books — an illiterate nazi, perhaps, or some corporate stooge. A dude from Utah started around the same time I did, and he told me multiple times that he hated books. Even if he hadn’t told me, you could see his disdain in the giddy way he disposed of literature. He was a machine, working harder than any other employee to send literary works to their death. His beady eyes glinted when he brought a fresh pallet of books to his workstation. It was perverse.
In truth, the job was awesome for a book lover and nascent writer like myself, at least for the first two years. We got to keep any books the system didn’t accept, as well as any that were too damaged. Find a book you really liked and “damaged” became subjective and open to interpretation. A folded page or smudge of dirt might be considered damaged if you wanted the book enough. This was a fairly open, though unspoken, guideline among my coworkers. The company line was that you should never take a book we could sell, but everyone except the bibliophobic Utahn bent that rule constantly.
Scanning thousands of books each day, there were hundreds you could potentially keep, even as an honest appraiser of book damage. You could tell how long each of us had worked in the warehouse by how many books we took home. New people waddled away carrying multiple boxes of books each day, grinning like they’d gotten away with shoplifting. As you ran out of room in your house or apartment, you became increasingly selective. Within a few months, we all became hardened veterans that only kept one or two books per week, if that. Even still, my apartment was packed to the gills with books I’d rescued. I built makeshift shelves using planks and cinder blocks, adding new levels as needed. I told myself that I’d read them all.
At the time, I was going to school for my English degree. If you would’ve asked me if literature lasts forever before I started working at the book warehouse, I would’ve immediately and emphatically said yes. During and afterward, I wouldn’t have an easy answer for you.
Consider the public library. Here’s a necessary institution that physically and digitally houses our (arguably) most important literature. Browsing the racks can make you feel like our culture’s books are safe in the soft, wispy hands of dedicated librarians. But you don’t think about libraries throwing books out to make room for new ones, even though it’s obvious they’d have to. At least I didn’t before my stint in the book warehouse. When I go into libraries now, I see flashes of the rows of book mounds that awaited their demise in dimly-lit warehouse aisles. I tried to tell myself that the great books in those mounds might get recycled and made into other great works — but it was more likely they’d get used to make toilet paper, or for whatever bullshit self-help book that dominated best-seller lists next.
Every so often we culled our own shelves, recycling books that, although approved by the system, didn’t end up selling. We had to make room on our shelves for books that might actually sell. We scanned books through the system one at a time, but we culled them in huge armloads, coldly dumping them into cardboard mass graves. This was berserker mode, a blood orgy. The book hater from Utah loved to cull shelves, that fiend.
Although I mostly stopped caring about throwing books away after a month or two, the starkness of it would periodically sucker punch me — and there was no escape from that cruelty when culling shelves. So many of these writers spent years on their books just to have some lug in a warehouse toss the finished product in a recycling bin — years of someone’s life poured onto each page, not to mention all the hard work on behalf of the designers, editors, and book publicity professionals. Self-help books and get-rich-quick guides were some of the best-selling books in the warehouse, and they almost certainly took the least time to write. You think someone writing about a fad diet is going to spend as much time on their work as Alice Walker did for The Color Purple? No fucking way. According to that system, it made more sense to aspire to write bullshit than anything of substance.
As unnerving as watching great books get brutalized in the thresher of capitalism could be, my warehouse job didn’t become spiritually crushing until what I like to call the Enema Revolution of 2010. I worked at the warehouse from 2007 to 2010, which, you might notice, conveniently overlapped with a global financial crisis. In an economic chokehold, the higher ups thought it prudent that we focus more on product storage and order fulfillment, which, up until then, only comprised a small piece of the overall company. Selling old library books was the company’s bread and butter for a long time — until, that is, we started dealing in enemas, absinthe kits, electric wattage meters, and chintzy plastic jewelry. If we had so desired, we could’ve used those products in conjunction to throw a raging party.
Slowly but surely, aisles of discarded library books gave way to aisles of enema kits. We only housed one company’s enema devices — yet there were so many variations upon that simple machine. Some with a certain kind of nozzle or hose, luxurious models, economical models, some with more spraying capacity, and on and on and on. Name your asshole purging needs and, by God, this company had you covered.
Move fifteen feet to the right of the enema mother lode and you’d find yourself trapped in a maze of Western-themed plastic jewelry. The stores to whom we shipped this jewelry never wanted a few pairs of earrings or necklaces. They wanted a shitload of them. So I would spend hours counting out hundreds of packets of earrings, making sure to get the amount EXACTLY RIGHT, because, we were told time and again by management, it was VERY IMPORTANT that our customers always got exactly what they ordered. No more. No less. But the kick in the ass came when I’d spend an hour or more on one order only to realize that I’d been counting out the wrong piece-of-shit earrings. It needed to be 250 of the Western stirrup earrings not the English stirrup earrings, dummy. Start over.
As if this transition in mission didn’t cause us enough existential despair, the higher ups still needed to cut costs. Their next solution was to create a merciless attendance system that was a thinly veiled attempt to keep employee churn high. You had to work at the warehouse for three months before you could get benefits, so high employee churn cut down on the unacceptable cost of helping people get medical attention. The three company leaders were all Subaru-driving, granola-gobbling, “liberal” capitalists. Talk to any one of them and you’d be told that the problem with America was our lack of reliable systems to protect our citizenry. But behind closed doors they created yet another system designed to slit our throats. The owner always smiled and nodded at me when he walked past. His teeth were perfectly white, his beard was neatly trimmed, and he sported the latest in outdoor recreational fashion. An inspiring figure.
The attendance system: each warehouse worker started with a certain amount of points, and you lost points for lateness, time off, and leaving early. Anything over ten minutes late and you lost points. Late bus? Fuck you. Points lost. Need to leave twenty minutes early for your mother’s funeral? Fuck you. Points lost. As intended, the warehouse became a revolving door for laborers. There was a time when most of us were good friends , when we knew and cared about each other , but capitalism has no use for such bonding.
Management didn’t spend much time on the warehouse floor with proletariat scum such as us. They resided in second-floor cubicles behind glass, from which they could watch all the goings-on of the warehouse. I imagined the company owner up there, stroking his beard and observing us like we were lizards in his aquarium. For the watched, it was never clear when we were being watched, which made us assume we were being watched constantly. I mean, come on, if you’re going to build a panopticon, make it a little less obvious. Each of us also had a unique QC number we used to sign off on orders we fulfilled. Mine was 44. I’ll never forget it. It’s tattooed on my mind.
I still have several books I got from the warehouse, but my most powerful and imposing memory of working there is spending two-plus hours gathering very specific amounts of plastic jewelry, placing the items on a metal cart, then signing 44 next to each product and its quantity on a multiple-page order sheet. There’s part of me that will perpetually be counting out individual packets of plastic earrings and making sure, over and over and over, that I’m getting the right ones.