Next to my precious family and pets, what I value most in this world are the books we have accumulated over a lifetime. There must be thousands of them, bulging in piles from groaning bookshelves, stacked behind chairs and beside television and stereo sets, under beds, et cetera, et cetera. There’s even a complete set of Champion Annuals from 1924, locked away down in the garage. Our house is really Book Heaven.
Yet I have to admit, as my teeth grow longer and my wind gets shorter, that they are beginning to loom over me like a visitation from Book Hell. Why? Well, it’s not rocket science but we pass this way but once, they say, and nothing I learned from Sunday school suggests you can take your goods and chattels, no matter how uplifting, with you to the pearly gates. So I have reached that stage in my life where the books I have acquired from everywhere are less an expression of knowledge and pleasure than one huge pain in the neck instead.
I had discussed this with Grace, my wife, who had watched my book addiction with mounting concern, until I had the bright idea of selling them. Or setting up a website to sell them. Or renting a table at our local markets to sell them. By this stage she had given up on my procrastination. But we still had thousands of books to dispose of before we could even begin to think of downsizing, or doing anything else that requires you to travel light.
A flash of inspiration prompted me to fill my car boot with my collection of rugby books, including a prized set of Playfair Rugby Annuals 1945-1972, and boldly set off on the 120-kilometre drive to another town in northern New South Wales where there is a long-established second-hand bookseller. And where, I believed, there was a healthy population of private school rugger-buggers tilling the soil in the local district. I should not have bothered.
It was then that like much of Australia, I decided that if I was ever to reduce what was now described in our household as “all this junk” to a respectable, non-sclerotic, level, I would have to lower my sights and my horizons.
What a revelation the Buy, Swap, Sell sites turned out to be. It was like the garage sales of the 1980s with their hand-written signs stuck on power poles and debris all over some fleeing owner’s front lawn; except that the buyers and sellers were multiplied in their thousands, while the location was concentrated in a single electronic garage.
I saw a huge range of potential transactions, from someone trying to offload their house, no less — ‘any realistic offers considered’ — to a pair of used sunglasses for $10. Now that took some imagination to absorb. It seemed that anything was up for sale, and all of it under the radar of the great pooh-bahs who regularly report on the state of the nation’s retail economy. Though I reckon they’d be glad not to incorporate in their returns the Queensland woman who offered her own brother for sale at $1,200.
Another post that particularly touched me was from a woman who had only $50 to spend on firewood and asked how much essential heating would that amount get her; whereupon, a seller responded with a photo showing how much he could deliver at her asking price. Deal done and another freezing evening warmed.
One could reach all sorts of conclusions as to why Buy, Swap, Sell and similar sites have taken off so dramatically. The most obvious would be that some people — possibly many — must be so pressed for cash that they would go to all the trouble of hitting the net to offer something worth only a few dollars. That seems plausible enough.
However, the thing that caught my attention was the issue of security in this particular form of online selling, requiring direct personal pickup and payment, without the usual complications of impersonal online selling — packing and postage, credit cards and Paypal.
A lot of consumer advocates warn that handing over one’s private address details to unknown ‘pick-up and pay’ buyers is a risky business and they’re quick to refer you to horror stories where sellers got more than they bargained for when a stranger arrived on their doorstep. But those horror stories seem to be far outweighed by others which seem to overflow with the surprise and joy of people meeting new people. That must say something, surely, about where we’re at.
Because the posts warming me most were those where a dog owner, for example, reported a missing pooch and asked other users to keep an eye open for the errant hound, to be followed by a staccato fire of reports that said “Mutt seen at Marsh and Donnelly at 9:37”, followed by another tracking the beast to Faulkner and Kirkwood at 9:42, before, eventually, it was reported that human and canine were reunited, to general rejoicing on Buy, Swap, Sell.
While even the darker posts, those warning the fearful that suspicious people were lurking in their neighbourhood and to be on guard, do suggest a powerful need in us to reach out to others, to make human contact no matter how shallow or fleeting. Doing so in defiance of the pressure brought to bear by the gig economy to cut ourselves off from others in the interest of achieving greater efficiency in the job in hand.
I think it was Charlie Chaplin, nearly a century ago in the silent movie Modern Times, who pointed towards the fallacy of trying to elevate efficiency above the instinct to be human. So, security, schmecurity, I say, being quite relaxed about posting the product of decades of book buying on the net. But, somehow, I’m not quite so optimistic about selling them. Anyone for landfill?