In Phoenix, a Thriftbooks warehouse holds 2.4 million used books
At first, when she won, Sheree Slagle thought it might be a scam.
She had entered the contest after reading about it on Facebook. As instructed, she wrote about her favorite purchase — she chose Hershey’s “Make It Chocolate” cookbook — and made sure to include the appropriate hashtag.
Then she hit “post,” sending her words into the ether, not really expecting anything to come of it.
A week passed. And then she was tagged in a comment. “Congratulations, Sheree Slagle,” it read. “You’re going to The Land of ThriftBooks!”
Could it be true?
Sheree was suspicious. These kinds of contests were a dime a dozen on social media, but no one ever seemed to actually win. “And there’s all these crazy scammer people, right?” she said.
A fellow winner, a Pennsylvania woman named Rachael Mariani, had the same thought. Soon after the comment was posted, she sent Sheree a message: “Do you think this is a scam?”
They weren’t sure. And nobody else was, either.
“Actually,” Sheree said, “everybody I’ve told that I won a trip has been like ‘Are you sure it’s not a scam?’”
A journey to the Land of Thriftbooks
On a recent Friday morning, Sheree and her husband Tim disembarked from a shiny black Cadillac Escalade outside a warehouse in Tolleson.
They had traveled to Phoenix from their home in rural Nebraska, where Sheree works as a library aide and Tim as a cattle pen checker in a feedlot, scoping out sick cows from atop a horse.
It was their first time in Arizona, Tim said, and their third on a plane. “So that tells you how much we’ve traveled,” he said.
Rachael was there too. She and her 8-year-old son Vincent had flown five hours from the Philadelphia suburbs.
It wasn’t a scam after all.
The building in front of them, squat and gray with orange trim, seemed to stretch on forever under the cloudless sky.
Inside lay The Land of Thriftbooks.
Thriftbooks, founded in 2003, has an inventory of 15 million new and used books, which it sells both directly and through third parties like Amazon and eBay.
It has five facilities across the United States, and the Phoenix warehouse, which opened in 2021, is the largest. At 190,000 square feet, it is bigger than the average Walmart Supercenter, it employs 226 people locally, and processes around 35,000 used books every day.
Right now, it houses around 2.4 million books, with space for 600,000 more.
As part of its 20th anniversary celebrations, Thriftbooks gave away five “Teal Tickets,” a nod to the golden tickets from Roald Dahl’s classic novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
Each winner and a guest would receive an all-expenses paid trip to Phoenix to tour the warehouse and take home as many free books as they could carry.
Sheree and Rachael won via a Facebook giveaway. Three others, from Florida, Minnesota, and San Diego, found their tickets in swag boxes sent to randomly selected customers.
Once inside, the winners and their guests waited eagerly in a corridor. Barbara Hagen, the VP of marketing, was about to open an ordinary door with a tiny black label reading WAREHOUSE.
“I feel like this is the Willy Wonka scene right now,” Hagen said, her hand on the doorknob.
“Just don’t lick the walls!” someone said.
A warehouse, but like a mega-library
As they stepped into the warehouse, the winners stopped.
“Wow,” someone said. There was a disbelieving laugh.
A wall of books stretched out in front of them.
The rows seemed endless, shelf after shelf, each white metal structure stacked with eight layers of books of all shapes, sizes and colors. It was like an industrial mega-library, designed not for comfort, or to invite in the reader, but to maximize efficiency and precision. The space was too new and too gargantuan to be musty, but the unmistakable aroma of secondhand books hung in the air.
As the winners walked down a central aisle, taking in the array of books around them, beeping and whirring sounds grew louder.
Eventually, the shelves gave way to reveal a more typical warehouse scene: a hopper, unceremoniously dumping books onto a conveyor belt.
The books, and the occasional piece of trash, spilled forth from a gigantic cardboard box. Known in the industry as gaylords, these boxes can hold around 900 books, and are the primary way used books arrive at Thriftbooks. The company buys gaylords of books from thrift stores like Goodwill or from libraries, and then sifts through them to figure out what they can sell and what they will recycle.
As a steady stream of books arrived on the conveyor belt, two employees made split-second decisions. Books good enough to keep stayed on the belt. Books to recycle or donate went back into a gaylord. Trash was tossed in a bin.
Books that make the cut go on to be scanned for an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), a book identification system introduced in 1970. Those with them can be processed by machines, and those without, by humans. A decision is made about whether to add them to the inventory. They are graded for quality, on a scale that runs from “acceptable” to “like new”.
Then they go on the shelves.
A person with a fastidiously organized bookshelf might be horrified by the Thriftbooks shelving system, which is not really a system at all. The millions of books that pass through the warehouse are shelved not alphabetically, or by genre, but simply in the order in which they are received.
The outcome is delightfully random, the shelves full of unexpected confluences both dizzying and beguiling.
A slight movement of the head can take you from Dale Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends and Influence People” to one of Franklin W. Dixon’s “Hardy Boys” stories to “The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook,” not to be confused with the official version, which is also somewhere in Thriftbooks’ hefty collection.
On another shelf, Jordan B. Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life” rubbed shoulders with Prince Harry’s “Spare,” the books separated by the ominously titled “Bookclubbed to Death,” a mystery by the writer V.M. Burns.
A second copy of “Spare” lingered a few books away, but it was not a hint of method to the madness. When two identical books end up close together, it’s because they arrived in the same gaylord and were processed at around the same time. Or it’s a wild coincidence.
Chaos rules, with two exceptions: the X section, which is next to the shipping department, and where John Grisham and Dr. Seuss abound. This is where the fast sellers go, the books that fly off the shelves almost as quickly as they land on it.
The second is a small space, tucked away at one end of the warehouse, known as the Collectibles Room.
In this room, the ‘truly unique’ collectible books
The books that get funneled to Collectibles are, for one reason or another, special.
They might be first editions. They might be Easton Press, a brand of luxury leather bound books. They might be part of a coveted series, like the six-volume “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” They might be extremely old, or signed by the author, or have ephemera tucked inside, like, say, a notice for Abraham Lincoln’s funeral. (True story.)
“We get to deal with the truly unique books,” said William Shelton. As the director of vintage, he oversees every book too weird or too wonderful to be placed on the ordinary shelves.
His excitement was palpable as he led the tour into his domain, and brought out an enormous book, the pages yellowed with age.
It was a Rosetta Stone style book from the 16th century, Shelton said; a multi-language dictionary that recorded the languages of the time.
He invited the winners to briefly feel the pages. “This is actually called vellum, and it’s made of lambskin and cotton,” he said.
The book was stained, as though it had been dropped in water, but the vellum wouldn’t degrade like a modern book, Shelton said. “This book is hundreds of years old and will last for up to thousands of years because of how it’s made.”
Behind him, employee Connie Reagan-Fly was working on a first edition of “Charlotte’s Web,” the first title ever sold by Thriftbooks.
She has several tasks for each book that lands on her desk: assess it, research a fair market price, photograph it, write a descriptive listing, and sometimes even do repairs.
“It’s in good shape,” she said, of this particular copy. “But it doesn’t have a jacket.”
The dust jacket makes it a lot more recognizable, she added, that iconic image of Charlotte and Wilbur and Fern. She was hoping one would materialize in the gaylords, perhaps on a copy that wasn’t in good enough shape to be sold.
Reagan-Fly will mark 10 years at Thriftbooks in March. For her, each day brings something unexpected.
“You think you’ll get used to this many books,” she said, looking out over the shelves. “But I’m always seeing something. ‘Oh, I didn’t know we had that.’”
Some strange books have passed through Collectibles. They have encountered 15th- and 16th-century books of black magic, known as “grimoires.” One time, Shelton said, they found a monks’ chant book that appeared to predate the printing press.
“The monks had hand-tanned the leather, so it almost looked like human skin they had stitched together,” Shelton said.
“So you never know what you’re going to find.”
Free books, but not a free-for-all
The warehouse was even bigger than Sheree had anticipated.
She enjoyed the tour, but found one part hard to watch: the hopper dumping the books onto the conveyor belt. “Because I like my books,” she said.
She is a loyal Thriftbooks customer, much preferring to buy books secondhand, but she also dabbles in audiobooks.
“I didn’t want to say that out loud,” she said, looking around the warehouse furtively before whipping out her phone to display a library app called Libby.
She borrows audiobooks on it and listens when she’s driving or doing embroidery. “But those are the books I don’t want to own.”
Sheree had tried to strategize her approach to the free book giveaway, thinking about her wish list. Then she found out the shelves weren’t in any kind of order, and her plan went out the window.
As it turned out, the endless rows were off-limits anyway, as those books had potentially already been bought.
Instead, the ticket winners dove into four huge crates, stacked to the brim with books that ranged from veritable bestsellers such as the Bible, to iconic children’s books like “A Series of Unfortunate Events” by Lemony Snicket, to comparatively lesser known titles such as “Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Banker: And Other Baller Things You Only Get to Say If You Work on Wall Street.”
“I’m finding some,” Sheree said, as she dug through the crate. “I’m a little particular.”
“She’s a book snob, I think,” Tim said. He stood beside Sheree, holding the bag open so she could throw them in. “She’s the bookworm, I’m just the sidekick,” he said.
He reads quite a bit now but wasn’t always into it.
“I didn’t read in high school,” he began, “but then — ”
“He married me!” Sheree said.
It was that, yes, but also the aftermath of a heart attack and surgery that turned Tim into a regular reader. “She picks out interesting stuff that I like,” he said, gesturing to his wife.
The couple, who are both 65 and recent empty-nesters, have five kids, meaning there was no shortage of people to find books for.
Sheree’s best find was a copy of “Mother Goose,” by Tomie dePaola. “I was excited to grab that for my…” she trailed off. “I don’t know, somebody. Right?”
Rachael and Vincent were also thinking of others, having promised Vincent’s second grade teacher they would bring some books back for his classroom.
Among the titles Vincent chose was a book about the Green Bay Packers, a novel from the Captain Underpants series, and “James and the Giant Peach” by Roald Dahl.
They often read together, Rachael said, and were currently making their way through “Holes” by Louis Sachar. Rachael thought the movie was a good adaptation, and planned to watch it with Vincent, but not before she issued a common refrain: “No, you can’t watch it till you read the book.”
“I want to live here,” she said, as she sifted through books. “I feel like every book that I could possibly want is probably somewhere in there.”
Vincent has two books full of strange facts, part of a set of three, Rachael said. The one he doesn’t have has been out of stock for a long time.
As he explored the warehouse, and canvassed its possibilities, this elusive third book had drifted across his mind.
“He was like, ‘Oh, maybe it’s in one of those boxes that they didn’t open yet’,” Rachael said. “Maybe my green book is here.”