Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Buying Used Books on the Internet—Caveat Emptor

When I started selling books in 1994, the Internet was still a novelty, and there were, I believe, only one or two avenues to purchase used books online. The number of online booksellers was very limited, and the level of professionalism was quite high among those dealers. Now there are thousands of online book dealers, and the overall quality of service has declined dramatically. (Prices have declined dramatically too—very nice for the buyer, but not so nice for us dealers).

There are many venues for your online book purchases. You can shop through Amazon, of course, and EBay, but there are many more, including Alibris, and my favorite, Biblio.com. One online listing site for independent dealers is ABE Books, which lists books from 7,058 dealers in the United States.

I have just received a copy of James Safire’s novel of the War Between the States titled Freedom: A Novel of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. (This 1100 page monster was recommended in another volume that I highly regard, Jeffrey Hummel’s Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War.) I searched online for a used hardcover copy and ordered it through ABE Books from a dealer located in Florida.

I often search for used books on ABE, and nine times out of ten, it seems, this particular dealer has one of the least expensive copies available, often priced with no additional charge for shipping. Another thing you will notice if you search for a book and find it at this dealer, it will almost certainly be described as “a wonderful copy.” Here is the dealer’s description for the book I just received: “A wonderful copy with some minor edgewear to the cover. Dust jacket has some edgewear present. Hardcover, Very Good/Very Good.”

I have usually assumed the cheapest copy available is not going to be a very nice copy, but I’ve always wondered about this dealer’s “wonderful” copies, so I ordered this one to find out. I now wonder how any book dealer could describe the book I received as “wonderful” or “Very Good.”

First of all, this hardcover is a Book Club edition, which should always be noted in a book’s description, as often these are of inferior quality compared to the publisher’s original edition. Then there is that “some edgewear” on the dustjacket. The jacket of this book was not only worn but also torn along the edges in several places, the corners worn through, with another one-inch tear on the rear. The jacket would rate no more than “Good” in my shop. The book itself probably rates a Good or Good+. The edges are worn (as described), the spine is bent, and it shows rough handling.

The condition of this large book was probably worsened as it came through the mail because the packaging was totally inadequate. This 2.5-inch-thick volume came in a padded envelope, which had come open in transit, with no other wrapping around the book, and there was no invoice or packing slip.

On the plus side, it was cheap. For this massive volume I paid $3.64 including shipping. I ordered it on March 2 and received it March 15—about average shipping time for Media Mail. So, if you are not too concerned about the condition of the book, and you can wait a couple of weeks to get it, this dealer might be the place to shop. However, if you are concerned about quality or condition or speed of service, I would recommend that you not buy the cheapest copy you can find. If a dealer boasts of listing 1.2 million books and has the cheapest copy available, they are not paying much attention to accuracy in their listings.

The Internet certainly offers some bargains for book hunters—but caveat emptor—let the buyer beware.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Transforming Culture

A few months ago the Barna Research Group released findings from a study that found "Six Megathemes" that are characteristic of the Church in the U.S. today. Among the six was this one:

"The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible."

The Barna article explains:
"Christianity has arguably added more value to American culture than any other religion, philosophy, ideology or community. Yet, contemporary Americans are hard pressed to identify any specific value added. Partly due to the nature of today’s media, they have no problem identifying the faults of the churches and Christian people."

It was the concern for Christianity's influence on the culture that has motivated much of my work over the past 20 years. In 1991, newly arrived in the Lynchburg area, my wife and I learned of a new school that was practicing something called "classical Christian education." We were intrigued, and the more we learned, the more we knew that this was the sort of education we wished we had been able to have for ourselves, and this was the education we would desire for our children. A few months later, my wife was employed by New Covenant Schools as a teacher, and our sons were enrolled as students. A few years later, I became a member of the school board, on which I served for a number of years. My family and I were blessed in our association with New Covenant for at least 15 years.

From a beginning with about 16 students and volunteer teachers, New Covenant Schools has grown to a student body of about 350 within lovely, modern facilities located on 50 acres off Lakeside Drive. Graduates of this school have gone on to study at many first-class universities, including the University of Virginia, William and Mary, Johns Hopkins, and Duke. Perhaps more impressive in academic accomplishment is the performance of these students on the National Merit scholarship exams. Since 1996, New Covenant has graduated 95 seniors, and of these, seven were National Merit Finalists, and seven more were ranked as commended scholars. As a percentage of total graduates, this is a record unmatched, I believe, in any school, of any size, in the area. Arguing against the trend found in Barna's reseach, I do believe that the classical and Christian education found in schools like New Covenant is positive, lasting, and transformative in the lives of its students and the surrounding communities.

Around 1994, I read Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization. That book changed my life. In it, Cahill describes how, following the upheaval in civilization following the breakup of the Roman Empire, Irish monks in their remote monasteries preserved the learning of the ancient Greeks and Romans by copying manuscripts. It was such a simple thing--copying manuscripts. The monks labored in obscurity. But the fruit of their efforts was the preservation of culture, and indeed the creation of a new culture--classical and Christian.

Inspired by this example, I determined to open Inklings Bookshop in 1995. The purpose was to preserve and propagate learning--to help promote what I saw as the best of the classic literary tradition of the West. It has not been monetarily profitable. But I believe the quiet witness of promoting the good, the true and the beautiful has born some fruit.In modern society we tend to think that bigger and newer is always better. But the recovery of classical learning in schools like New Covenant, and the promotion of literary work in places such as Inklings, shows, I hope, that the life and learning of our ancestors offers great wisdom and promise for ages to come.
For the Barna research:http://www.barna.org/culture-articles/462-six-megathemes-emerge-from-2010

For New Covenant Schools

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

If you think the Post Office is efficient, you will probably love nationalized health care.

I wrote this over a year ago, before the passage of the national health care reform. As we are now beginning to see the true costs of nationalized health care, and are also hearing that the post office is loosing billions and considering service reductions, I thought I would post this piece, which was previously published in the Lynchburg News & Advance.


We hear that Washington politicians are suggesting they can "fix" or "reform" our nation’s health care and medical insurance. Before we allow the Federal government to take over control of health care perhaps we should first consider its effectiveness in other government-operated endeavors, for instance, delivering the mail.

I have operated a business in downtown Lynchburg over the past 14 years. During this time I have noticed a continual deterioration in the services of the Post Office, while costs have been regularly increasing.

A few years ago a new post office was built downtown at the corner of Clay and 12th Street. With the opening of that office, the office on Church Street and another near Miller Park were closed. The planners of this move apparently determined that the new post office could serve the same number of customers as previously were served at two post offices, with no increase in parking spaces being provided. Therefore, the new post office has the same number of spaces available for parking as were available for the one office on Church Street and far fewer than were available at the Miller Park station. Furthermore, the number of workers at the counter is no more than were available at one of the old post offices—often only one, sometimes two, so now one can always expect to stand in line for service. The hours of service have also been shortened, and the self-service stamp machine is no longer available.

I have also been dismayed at the loss of street receptacles for mail. Just as the new Market Loft apartments were ready to open, bringing dozens of new residents to downtown, the Post Office removed the mail drop directly across the street from these apartments. Recently several other Main Street mail drops were removed, even as the number of downtown businesses and residents continues to increase.

In the past couple of weeks I have received the wrong mail in my post office box at least four times, and nearly every week someone else’s mail arrives at my business address. A few months ago, a postal carrier decided to deliver my mail into an open cardboard box sitting on the sidewalk in the front of my business doorway. The mail carrier that brings the mail to our home apparently cannot tell that our house is not part of Randolph College (10 blocks away), since we frequently get mail clearly marked as belonging there.

Since I opened my business downtown fourteen years ago, the cost of a first class stamp has risen from 32 cents to 44 cents, an increase of 37%; postage for a flat rate Priority envelope then cost $3.00, now it is $4.95, an increase of 65%.

Now of course health care and delivering the mail are very different activities. Yes, health care is much more complicated and personal. Top-down government management is extremely impersonal, inefficient, and ineffective. Is this really what we would want in the delivery of medical services?

Increasing costs, less access, and declining quality—this has been my experience of the United States Post Office. Citizens of Canada and Great Britain have seen the same in nationalized heath care in their countries. I think we can expect the same if our health care falls further under the control of Washington politicians.