If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the book that was supposed to have arrived in the mail at your aunt’s house in Kansas, or the book that you accidentally left on the plane, chances are they are in the GovDeals warehouse. This 15-year-old Montgomery, Ala.–based company handles online auctions of government surplus items, including books, from across the country. That’s one reason why GovDeals exhibited for the first time at last month’s New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA) conference, where it hoped to raise its profile among booksellers.
For the past six years GovDeals has been part of the publicly traded Liquidity Services Inc., the company that retailers like Costco, Walmart, and Target turn to when they need to liquidate stock. Media companies like NBC also use LSI to sell surplus broadcast and IT equipment, as they did last July after the Sochi winter games. GovDeals is the branch of LSI that works specifically with local, state, and federal government agencies, including the United States Postal Service, as well as schools, libraries, and airport authorities.
Although GovDeals president and cofounder Roger Gravley said that books comprise less than 1% of the company’s projected $200 million budget for 2014—the bulk of its revenue comes from cars, trucks, and heavy equipment—it’s a segment that he would like to grow.
Before GovDeals was founded in 1999, many surplus books ended up in the trash. That could have been the fate of the 60 boxes of library books and VHS tapes from Virginia, recently available on GovDeals for a starting bid of $100, or the lot of audiobooks with a starting bid of $25 from Maury County, Tenn. “We’re trying to keep books out of landfills and make a little money,” said Gravley, noting that, “We don’t own these books. They’re on consignment.”
Since April 2013, GovDeals has held more than 2,000 online auctions to sell pallet-size lots of textbooks and reference titles, paperbacks, hardcovers, comic books, religious books, and foreign-language titles. Originally held live, the auctions were moved online to attract more buyers. Every two weeks roughly 50 bulk book lots go up for auction, containing 600 to 1,200 books each. Some recent lots sold for as much as $8,850 for an 80 lb. hamper of textbooks or as little as $95 for a lot of puzzle books. “We would love to have more bookstores bid,” said Gravley, who believes that when the auctions were live, those who attended tried to keep them secret because the price per book is so low. Paperbacks cost roughly $2 per book and hardcovers $3.50, and the vast majority of books are new releases. Currently the bidders tend to be online resellers, said Gravley, although a few independent bookstores and college stores have participated.
Bidders for bulk lots of recovered books can visit the 47,000 sq. ft. GovDeals warehouse in Atlanta, which is filled with items ranging from Legos to school buses, on the Tuesday before the book auctions close. But buyers aren’t allowed to go through the books in the gaylord. They can only view the top layer of books, which is also visible in photos posted on the GovDeals website.
Although GovDeals has more than 7,000 clients in 48 states and close to 5,600 auctions live on its site at any one time, book numbers still lag. It’s not yet clear whether the company’s efforts to reach out to bricks-and-mortar booksellers will bring more bidders. But as long as people leave books behind on planes and packages go undelivered, there will continue to be plenty of books for GovDeal to auction off.