The demise of the Waldenbooks chain this month would probably have been just another blip on the bleak retail landscape — until some employees confronted a mountain of unwanted books.
The chain, owned by Borders, had deemed them unsellables — leftover bodice-ripping romance novels and true-crime stories — and workers were instructed to strip off the covers and toss the guts. Online and in interviews, employees and customers across the country called it wasteful and launched a viral Internet campaign to change the practice.
“As a librarian & book freak, this hurts my heart!” posted one member of the Facebook group Donate, Not Dumpster! “Give them to kids, homeless shelters, shelters for abused women and families, foster homes, hospitals, health clinics — the possibilities are endless!”
The controversy sheds new light on what happens to the stuff consumers leave behind. The recession has prompted an unprecedented pullback in spending while consumers clamor for companies to become more environmentally conscious. Even though shoppers are buying less, they don’t want the remainder to go to waste.
Since the recession began, marquee names such as Linens ’n Things, Steve & Barry’s and Circuit City have gone out of business with warehouses full of inventory. Even healthy retailers are typically saddled with excess inventory after a holiday season that even the most aggressive clearance sales can’t eliminate.
“It always seems to be the last thing that a retailer thinks about,” said Gary Kulp, president of the retail division at Gordon Brothers Group, a liquidation and salvage firm. He estimates that as much as 30 percent of a store’s inventory can go unsold.
The highest-quality merchandise can be resold to discount retailers or even eBay powersellers. But some chains and manufacturers are concerned that their brand could be hurt if their products show up in a bargain bin. Other merchandise is too damaged or outdated to be resold in America. Experts said such merchandise is often exported, primarily to South America or Africa. Sometimes, it gets tossed in the trash.
Borders said many paperbacks could not be donated because the material might not have been appropriate for schools and libraries. But in response to the campaign, it said it would recycle the books rather than throw them away.
“It’s our commitment to do the right thing for the product and the book,” said Mike Edwards, Borders’ chief merchandising officer.