April 27, 2015

The Literature Litterbug has been caught, and it’s Amazon


Mister state trooper/please don't stop me...(image via Flickr)

Mister state trooper/please don’t stop me…(image via Flickr)

When we last reported on the “Literature Litterer” (aka the Bookdrop Bandit aka the Colophon Coyote), it was still a mystery as to who dumped hundreds of books along the side of a Colorado highway, and why. But thanks to the hard work of the Colorado State Highway Patrol, it’s a mystery no longer.

Last week, the State Patrol issued a press release in which they announced that the offender had been caught by Trooper Dennis Wilder. The document gets about as silly as cops are allowed to be (which is to say, not that silly): 

Trooper Wilder was made aware of the books and began an investigation, which yielded a possible identity of the responsible person. Throughout Trooper Wilder’s investigation, he worked with CDOT to ensure we were on the same page. The investigation went strictly by the book and after conducting surveillance of the driver, Trooper Wilder observed him throw books from his moving vehicle, Trooper Wilder threw the book at the driver for six counts of littering from a moving vehicle. The driver was identified as Glenn Pladsen of Arvada, Colorado. He was issued a citation and released.

The Colorado State Patrol and the Colorado Department of Transportation would like to remind everybody of our combined responsibility to keep our roadways clean. Anytime trash is thrown from a vehicle there are consequences. Please keep our beautiful state in mind as you drive our roads and we sincerely hope this is the final chapter in this annoying story.

Wilder is a decorated officer who had previously appeared in the news in 2007 after being shot during a traffic stop after a drunk-driving suspect opened fire. In 2000, Wilder successfully ended a high-speed pursuit, during which he was wounded by broken glass. He subsequently received the the Medal of Valor, the highest honor that the Colorado State Patrol awards.

But the questions remain: who is Glenn Pladsen? Why was he dumping books? And why did he have so many books in the first place? In a shocking twist, this isolated disposal of literature goes straight to the top of the book-devaluing chain of command: Amazon itself.

In an interview with the Longmont Times Call, Pladsen expressed surprise that his littering had made the news. “I didn’t even know anybody even cared…I just thought they were being blown in the ditch. That’s what I thought was happening.”

As for the books’ origins:

Pladsen says he isn’t sure how long he has been dumping books along U.S. 287 on his way to work in Longmont. He just knows he couldn’t figure out any other way to get rid of them.

Pladsen said that he acquired thousands of books after a Boulder used bookstore closed about eight years ago and that he sold them online for a while but was unable to compete with Amazon.

“The way they sell their used books put all the used book sellers out,” he said. “I was left with thousands of books in the house.”

The defunct bookstore isn’t named, though it’s possible that he acquired his stock from High Crimes Mystery Bookshop in Boulder, which closed about eight years ago.

Pladsen goes on to explain that a trip to the landfill was too much of a strain on his schedule, as well as his strength; he suffers from arthritis, and is unable to lift the boxes into a Dumpster. With nobody who would accept a donation, and no easy disposal route, Pladsen resorted to tossing books, a few at a time (or “Andy Dufresning” them) out his car window.

In his defense, Pladsen says that there’s more to this mystery than meets the eye.

He added later that he is being blamed online for other books being dumped on the highway but not all of those reports can be attributed to him, and he never left books inside Longmont city limits.

“I never did it when there were other cars around or in traffic,” he said. “I had no idea it was a mystery. I would have stopped a long time ago if I though anybody cared.”

Is there the possibility of a Literature Litterbug copycat (aka the Deckled-Edge Disposal Doppelganger) roaming the highways of Colorado?

Maybe. But while it would be perfectly adequate to conclude here, let’s consider the larger implications of this story. Donating books is much harder than it used to be. That’s partly a matter of saturation; as we’ve previously discussed, there are just a lot more books these days. And unlike used clothing or appliances, there’s no major, easily-accessed outlet for donation or sale like the Goodwill or Craigslist. If you’re trying to be noble and foist off boxes of used books on either of those, you’re looking at a steep journey.

You could try donating books at your local indie bookstore, but bear in mind that people approach them about just this every day, and they get turned down. Resale value is a fairly nebulous concept in used book retail, but one hard limit is storage space; bookstores don’t have much, and they won’t devote it to stock they know won’t move, like outdated textbooks, tattered James Michener, endless Dover Thrift—or the contents of Mr. Pladsen’s basement. (ed. note: It’s perhaps also adding that publishers tend to frown on book reselling as well—they want to be sure that they’re profiting from what people are reading—and tend to frown on, if not actively discourage, “hybrid” independent bookstores that carry both new and used books. Same goes for remainders, though that’s a slightly different subject.)

When I worked in used book processing, there was a daily parade of shock and disappointment when people realized their old books weren’t going to be purchased. Most smaller stores will simply refuse to take donations, let alone provide payment, for old books. Anyone who’s ever had to clean out a bookish grandparent’s house, or storage locker, knows this dilemma.

If you feel a twinge of guilt about disposing of books, it may be because there are other options. However, they’re not always practical. There is a community of people who will accept book donations, and while that and the recycling laws vary by state, it does exist. However, it’s usually more time- and labor-intensive to take this option than it would be to simply drive to the landfill. Libraries accept donations. Books can be donated as a tax write-off. Better World Books has drop boxes throughout Colorado. But why do these options always seem like such a bridge too far?

Pladsen’s not blameless, and he’s responsible for a lot of wasted time and effort on the part of the CDOT. But while he may be culpable for littering, he’s a part of a larger problem. Overproduction is an issue, but it’s a difficult one given the fact that publishing is all about predicting demand. Any prediction is difficult, but demand for most books is particularly difficult to gauge. Amazon’s not just straitjacketing used booksellers; their business model is based on devaluing books by selling them at a subsidized loss and presenting them as a cheap, disposable commodity—and they’ve been successful. They’ve made used bookselling a barely viable side hustle, not because the free market doesn’t allow for it but because Amazon gamed the system.

When a book’s value is minimized, so is the time and energy their owner will spend finding them a home outside of the trash heap. Pladsen may have thrown books out of his car, but at least he didn’t spend billions throwing them under the bus.

Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.