Purging Books and Tchotchkes

Since last October, I have been gradually taking over the formal dining room, turning it into my “work space.” Using the wireless laptop in the dining room seemed innocuous: we don’t entertain much, and the clean horizontal service was beckoning me to put junk on it. After the laptop found a cozy place to park, there soon appeared a pair headphones and the heaps of cords and cables to the doodads I plug into my laptop. Eventually the table became home to my biking stuff, unread mail, sourdough starter drying, library books, and recipes.

It’s worse than it looks.

It became a mess, but it was my mess. Whenever we had company over, I’d dump everything on the nearest horizontal surface in the study — which has an interesting geologic layering effect — and as soon as the guests left, the mess would re-appear. (I now see where the kids learn this stuff.)

The sweat-soaked cardboard boxes, food wrappers and burnt-out mattresses finally got to my spouse, because she suggested that we could move her stuff into part of the master bedroom, leaving the entire study to me. (Or maybe this is just how I chose to remember it.) I could move back in and, with the formal living absent of squalor, we could once again invite friends over for dinner.

So, with the yellowjackets otherwise disposed, I have spent a goodly portion of the last week getting my study back into shape. In principle, this was straightforward:

  1. Get rid of a lot of books
  2. Move my spouse’s stuff and computer upstairs on a new bookshelf.
  3. Install a real desk, with drawers, not just a wide-open horizontal surface
  4. Dispose of, sell, hide all the random clutter


Reducing the number of books we own was very hard. With the kids’ collection, it’s pretty easy to cull the ones they’ve lost interest in. My wife made a pass through hers. Then it was my turn. I think Janet planned this because I had previously acceded to a simple, objective, and powerful test:

  • Put a bunch of books in a box in the garage.
  • A year later, sell whatever’s still in the box.

Except for the weather books, the aviation collection failed this test miserably. I cataloged everything and sent out the list to a group of pilots, one of whom jumped on buying the entire 83-book collection.

Next, I made a quick pass through my shelves, pricing some items on Amazon’s Marketplace. If the low-end value was more than $8 or the book was really small and there weren’t a jillion already for sale, I put it up for sale. The rest I brought to Half-Price Books or foisted upon friends. I used to donate the books to Goodwill, but they

My local Half-Price Books is a strange place, and one I’d appreciate more if I read a lot of fiction and was less fanatical about using my county library. The “half-price” part seems to be what you pay based on the face value of the book, though it’s sometimes “three-quarters price.” They buy books, but pay very little and are very secretive about how they calculate prices. However, based on watching this a few times, they seem to value recency, unique/autographed items, condition, and the number of copies in stock. For example, a woman ahead of me brought in two pop paperbacks. They offered her $0.25, about $9.50 less than what she paid for them two days earlier.

With that level of pricing established, I still made $62 on two cars-ful of miscellaneous books. The most valuable item was the five book version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy on cassette tape. (Try not to think too hard about this or your brain will feel like it’s had a pan-galactic gargleblaster.) There was a lot of junk in there, too, like the 2001 Consumer Reports Buying Guide. You never know, someone might want that.

Of the 60 books I’ve listed on Amazon’s Marketplace, 27 have sold in the last week. I found it interesting and cruel that Amazon’s product detail pages remember when I purchased something. ( Ow, rub it in, why don’t you.) It’s a cool feature because in two cases, it’s prevented me from buying something a second time. (It failed when Simon Singh put out two versions of his
Code Book.)

Marketplace takes 15% plus $0.99, then does some creative math with the postage and handling — the buyer gets charged $3.49, but they credit me $2.26 for media rate ($5.05 for “expedited,” which only suckers use, apparently). A sample sale looks like this:

Debbie Explains the Universe
List price: $19.95.
Used & New: from$7.75

Jim’s price: $7.75
Buyer pays: $7.75 + $3.49 shipping/handling = $11.24
Amazon’s Commission: $7.75 * 15% = $2.15
Shipping credit: $2.26
Amount I get: $7.75 – $2.15 + $2.26 = $7.86
Amazon’s take: $11.24 – $7.86 = $3.38

What may not be evident is how brilliantly profitable Marketplace is for Amazon. By letting me lease their space, they earn a 43% gross margin on this book. They do not maintain inventory, nor do they actually ship the book. I do! My yield is more like $6.02 ($7.86 – $1.84 for up to 2 lbs media rate). This is much better than what I’d get at Half-Price Books.

For $39.99/month ($19.99 introductory fee for the first three months), Amazon will waive the $0.99 per item fee. Since I have 60 items for sale, it made sense to sign up for this, but I’ll cancel at the end of the month.

I’ve discovered two things about Marketplace:

  1. Other sellers are just as annoying as I am. Since I’m interested in clearing space, I want to do a quick sale. I researched what the other listings were going for, then made mine one penny less so they’d appear at the top of the list. On this book, another seller and I are playing price tango. After I posted my ad, he decremented his price $0.20 below mine. I updated mine to a penny below his; his was lowered again the following morning. Cat and mouse.
  2. Marketplace’s reporting system is very clunky. You’d think a volume seller could get an instant report on which items are open and sold. Negative. Reports are generated daily. There is an option to generate a delimited format, but this is done in batch mode. Holy 1994, Batman! Time to break out the blink tags!

Moving my wife’s stuff was much easier with fewer books to haul around. Thankfully, her computer worked without a hitch.
The areas I’ve vacuumed had accumulated an impressive layer of dust bunnies, dead spiders and debris.

I really want
that Alve Desk

I bought a desk at Ikea this weekend. Their catalog just came out and the place was packed. While I was navigating the maze, I wondered if this was why Chuck Palanhuik referenced them in
Fight Club. The word “mayhem” kept coming to mind. I finally stopped in their restaurant to get my bearings.

Like most furniture at Ikea, the desk required full assembly. I have to admire their brutal efficiency in packaging a thousand parts into two unintimidating boxes. More impresive, though, are the instructions without words.

And now we come to the random clutter. This is a work in progress, but I’ve found dozens of tchotchkes I’ve amassed over the years of doing trade shows. Most have been recycled or disposed of. Among the booty:


  • The stupidest thing ever given away was a laser pointer keychain. This statement may seem counter-intuitive, until you realize these were distributed at a sales conference where there were numerous presentations on products, strategy, and pricing. Picture if you will, a dimly-lit room full of salescritters, cell phones off, and inclement weather making it unlikely they’ll play golf schedule an off-site. Some marketing genius gave these things out the first day.

    100 bored salescritters + laser pointers = George Lucas special effect.

    I had to give a presentation on my products. I could see the little red dots zipping around the room, but during the presentation, some of them converged on my eyes. I stopped talking, and uttered the now infamous “Will you people please turn those fracking things off? I don’t want to be blinded.”

    Silence. Little red dots disappeared as the VP of Sales surreptitiously put his in his pocket, then got up and asked on the microphone if people would put them away.

  • Five lucite/granite desk weights. I don’t know how to describe these except they have some corporate significance, weigh a lot, and serve no obvious useful function to someone living outside the hurricane belt. The only neat one is a miniturized version of a company prospectus entomed in lucite. My first IPO!
  • Four plaques and statuettes commemorating achievement in the field of corporate excellence. They’re too heavy for me to take to interviews. (“See! See! I won the 1994 President’s Award, I must be ‘able to work independently and as part of a team’ therefore your search for a suitable candidate is complete!”)
  • Corporate logo-encrusted clothing. One pair of slippers (don’t ask — the stench finally wrung out after eight years), two sweaters, six dress shirts, 19 T-shirts. No pants, thongs or socks.
  • Temporary tattoos. Yes, I know this is very
    Jennifer Government, which is why they were never used. My response at the time: Why didn’t you go back to sleep until that idea goes away?
  • Three clocks. Two are so ugly, I’d be embarrassed to put them on my desk. One looks nice from a distance, but the clock has never worked. Or maybe it’s a metric clock.
  • Nine backpacks, book bags, and computer cases — My anticipated computer glut never happened. Eight were donated.
  • Stuff: Frisbees, mugs, rubber balls encrusted with LEDs, pocket tools and golf balls. The tools are still malleable (sigh). I gave the golf balls to a business associate.

This has been a lot of work, but I can finally see the floor. I plan to finish the job next week after I return from RSVP, the bike ride to Vancouver, BC.

5 Responses

  1. 27 books in one week? Jeez.. you must have made a lot of trips to the post office. When I would sell just a few books and cds in a week this got annoying.

  2. > you must have made a lot of trips to the post office

    I batch them up and go on alternate days. For Monday’s trip I had 10 books from the weekend. I expect the rate of sales to decay, though, as there are a lot of obscure titles.

    Going to the post office is a bit of a pain since they won’t let you drop off stuff more than a pound, but it’s cheaper than UPS for books.

  3. I made a fortune on Half.Com but never really did too well on Amazon. Since Half is drying up, I’m thinking Amazon’s going to get another shot. Although since the library opened, I don’t have to buy books any more so the problem, hopefully, will dry up!

    And, in your Tchotchkes Report, I don’t see keyboard brush or ruler/calculator… I can remedy these particular ommissions. Not to worry.

  4. > since the library opened, I don’t have to buy books

    That’s my longer-term strategy. I can’t believe the amount of stuff that I had (and still have, actually) that was read once, shelve indefinitely. Tech books were the worst. It was as if I was anticipating a alien invasion whereby the fate of the world would hinge on my programming C++ interfaces to Apache web servers. (God help us.)

    > I don’t see keyboard brush or ruler/calculator…

    Keyboard brush? OMG, that’s hilarious. But really, I’ll take your word on it. No, it’s okay! 🙂

  5. I received an announcement this morning indicating half.com was not going to close shop. The announcement is here.

    This is a relief. Half.com was nice because, unlike ebay, there are no listing fees. Thus, someone could list on both Amazon.com Marketplace and half.com “free,” paying a commission only to whichever marketplace resulted in a sale.