Monday, October 26, 2009

You could write a whole book about books in Israel – the problems in the acquisition and retention thereof.

One of the biggest adjustments I had to make in living here was learning how to live with fewer books – English language books here are not in plentiful supply, and when you do find them, they’re very expensive. A new trade paperback from a bookstore costs about $16-17, and even used (usually extremely “ used”) books are in the $10 range – the same books you’d be able to buy at a garage sale or thrift shop in the US for less than a dollar, if you had just a little luck.

So for someone like me – who reads somewhere between three and five books a week -- satisfying my book addiction became a very expensive proposition.

Other book-buying options didn’t help much. Yes, bookstores here do function almost like lending libraries. They offer to buy back the books they sell you for anywhere from 30-40% of the price you paid. That helps -- but because I bought almost all of my used books in Jerusalem, that meant I not only had to keep track of which book I bought in which store, but I also had to haul them back to Jerusalem on the bus. That wasn’t fun at all, so I only did that once. In other words, once I bought the book, I kept it.

Another solution was borrowing books from friends, but at the rate I read, it didn’t take long to exhaust their libraries. Nor was the local AACI English language library much help. I still find a few books there, but for the most part, I’ve read everything I want to read from that source.

For a while, at the beginning, my kids and a couple of very good friends in the US bailed me out. They’d send ‘care’ packages of books, which was a wonderful thing indeed. Then the US postal rates went nuts, and shipping books to me in Israel became way too expensive, so that source dried up.

For the last year or so, I’ve been buying books from, a massive used-book operation in the US. BetterWorld sells mostly library discards, lots of them for their rock bottom price of about $3.98, plus another $3.97 per book to ship it to Israel.

That’s worked out pretty well, and because they have an inventory of millions of books, I can always find books in the lower price range I want to read. Still, paying almost $8 per used book had its limits. Most of the time I just shut my eyes and refused to allow myself to think about what it was costing. For me, having books to read is as essential as food or water. I can’t live without books, so I paid.

Obviously I’m not the only one in this situation. We are the people of the book, after all, so there were – are – lots of us English language book readers over here, all facing the same problem.

A few years ago, someone in the Tel Aviv area set out to solve the problem. They created an internet book swap site called “Anglobooks”. The premise was interesting: People would list the books they were willing to either trade permanently or “loan”, and if you saw something you liked, you’d email the person and offer to trade – you’d mail them (or deliver in person, if you happened to be in the same area) one of your books, and get one of theirs in trade.

Sounds good, but there’s an obvious flaw. What if you saw a book on someone’s list you wanted, but that person wasn’t interested in any of the books you were offering? Because all trades were one-on-one, it took a considerable amount of emails to find a book each participant wanted from the other’s library. Then, too, lots of the Anglobook members only wanted to LOAN their book – not trade it away permanently. You’d have to return it to them, and get your own back as well.

Which meant, in its most essential form, you’d stand in line at the post office FOUR times for each book. Sending your book, then picking up theirs: then returning your book, and getting your own back again. Post offices in Israel are exact clones of those in the US. The opportunity to spend that kind of time standing in line was most definitely not appealing.

Then my friend Sally in Minnesota discovered an American book-trade organization that left me howling with envy. She discovered “paperback swap” – What a great idea that is!

Paperback swap was the first to treat books as fungible commodities. A book is a book – equal to every other book. So their system was, you’d list books you’d be willing to give away, and when someone saw one of your books he wanted, he’d email you and you’d send it to him – free. No money changes hands, the only cost is postage. But in return, you’d now have a “point” – and with that point, you could choose a book – any book – from anyone else’s list, free.

This was a marvelous concept – and completely eliminated the problems with the Anglobook site here. With paperback swap, you could pick any book from the millions listed by everyone, not just from the person who happened to want one of yours. Sally – who’s also a big reader -- traded books by the dozen, and I was envious, wishing we had something similar here.

And now, finally, a book-swap organization has found its way to Israel – not just Israel, but all over the world. It’s called “Book Mooch” – -- and it operates just like the US’s paperback swap. You list books you’re willing to give away, and when someone wants one, you send it out and then you get a “point”. With your ‘points’ you can pick a book from anyone else on the list, any book they’re listed and said they’re willing to give away. Again, no money changes hands. A book is a book is a book.

So this is fun. Last night I listed 141 books that I was willing to give away – these were books that I either didn’t like, were duplicates (back the salad days when people were sending me books, there were some duplicates), or books that, for whatever reason, I knew I’d never read, or read again. I was willing to trade them away for books that I did want.

By the time I got done listing – all you do is enter the ISBN, and the rest is automatic – there were five people who’d emailed me, wanting one or more of my books. By the time I went to bed, I’d taken orders for 12 books – from people all over the world. Tomorrow, I’ll take all these to the post office and be shipping them off to France, New Zealand, London, Glasgow, the Philippines, and of course, many to other readers right here in Israel.

Accordingly, this morning, I went “shopping” myself. With my accumulated “points” I “bought” ten books -- so far. I’ve already got lots of points. I picked books from people living in London, Denver, CO, New York, Switzerland, France and of course, several that other Israeli readers were offering.

Such a deal! In the first place, it’s really good to find books I want and to be able to trade them, one on one, for books I don’t. Yes, I have to pay postage – but that’s still just a fraction of what it costs to buy and ship a regular book.

But secondly – the ‘one worlders’ will love this – it’s really a lot of fun to be talking (so to speak) to book lovers all over the world. To recommend books to each other, to add a few lines to an email about this book or that.

Indeed, in some respects, Disney was right: it’s a small world after all.


  1. thank you so much for telling us about this new deal!

  2. Join BookMooch -- I'm mailing out 20 books this morning -- and I've got ten on their way to me! What fun!!