Remainders: Get ’em While They Last

By Darrell Delamaide

I’ve discovered a partial cure for the condition that afflicts many of us: not being able to go into Politics & Prose, our great local independent bookstore, without buying a bag full of books. Now, I go directly to the remainder shelves and do my shopping among the bargain books. I still come away with several books but spend a lot less money.

Remainders are those copies of hardcovers and trade paperbacks that the publisher sells at a steep discount to make room in the warehouse and get inventory off its account books. Because they are the end game in a production method that is in the process of disappearing, remainders will soon be an historic artifact.

What I like about shopping for remainders at P&P is that somebody has made an effort to find good books to put on the bargain shelf. These may be by well known authors, but often they’re by writers you’ve never read.

In a book culture too often in the grip of group-think — book clubs all reading the same handful of bestsellers that get reviewed and promoted just for that audience — it may seem quaint to pick up a book and buy it just because you like what you see in sampling a few pages. We all consider our time so precious that the idea of reading a book that hasn’t been vetted by one of the arbiters of popular culture seems extremely risky.

At Barnes & Noble, which seems to acquire its bargain books by the container load, you are indeed taking your chances on buying something that could be a waste of time. But at an independent like P&P, which has already filtered out much of the detritus, dipping into remainders can be quite rewarding.

In earlier forays on the remainder shelves, I have discovered new writers and reconnected with others I’d forgotten. For instance, I once picked up Simon Mawer’s The Gospel of Judas as a remainder. It was an intriguing book that I liked well enough to buy another novel of his (at full price!), The Glass Room, which I loved. He is now one of my favorite authors. Another time, I came across Forgetfulness by Ward Just, which was apt enough, because I’d forgotten that I really liked his novel The Translator when I’d read it years earlier.

Just, of course, is a prolific and well established mid-list author who fortunately has a base of readers who consistently buy his books at full price. Authors don’t get any money from the sale of remainders, so he’s hardly relying on my purchase of a remainder copy to make a living. But it made me much likelier to look for his new books and consider buying them. For his part, Mawer has advanced to being a certified book-club-worthy author.

On a recent trip to the remainder shelves, I picked up four books — for the price of one! One was I Curse the River of Time by the Norwegian author Per Petterson, who became relatively well known in this country for Out Stealing Horses. Another was The Chester Chronicles by Kermit Moyer, whom I’d never heard of but who utterly charmed me with the opening pages of this book. A third novel was City of Veils by Zoë Ferraris, a mystery thriller set in Saudi Arabia.

I hadn’t seen reviews of any of these titles and never heard of two of the authors. It may well be that I won’t like the books as much as I did the opening pages. But I only paid a little more for each than I would for a triple-grande cappuccino.

The fourth book was nonfiction, The Battle for Christendom by Frank Welsh, an account of the crucial role in European history played by the Council of Constance in the 15th century. Welsh argues that we pay too much attention to Western Europe in our study of history and ignore important events in Central and Eastern Europe. Constance, he claims, was more important than Agincourt in European history. In any case, it appealed to my fascination with the invisible borders running through the continent that I discovered while researching my own book, The New Superregions of Europe.

So a good haul, I think, which may end up just adding to the unread volumes on my bookshelf but could well afford me hours of pleasure, enhanced by the fact that I discovered these all on my own (with a little help from the P&P elves).

Darrell Delamaide is a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C. His latest book is The Grand Mirage.

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