Am I a Thief or an Entrepreneur?


By Carlos Portocarrero

masked By Hagerstenguy

As some of you know, I’m itching for a new computer and I’ve set out to do it without spending a single cent of my own money. That means I’m saving up all the money from my alternative income and I’m also selling things I don’t need anymore.

That means selling some books. Which is going pretty well, I might add. But the other day something happened and I started to wonder if maybe I’m going too far.

I live in a high rise, and in the laundry room there’s a little shelf with a whole bunch of books that people leave there for other residents to “enjoy.” (some of you probably know where this is going)

Anyway, since I’m on a mission to scratch together $1,000 for a new PC, the other day I walked in there and instead of seeing books I saw dollar signs: most of the books are crap: David Baldacci books that go for 30 cents on Amazon. But others are hardcover, first-editions worth around $20. So I grabbed a few and took them with me, all the while looking over my shoulder wondering if this would qualify as “enjoying” or not.

The books in the laundry room are meant to be used like an informal library, although I’m sure most people just leave books down there that they don’t want to throw away (that’s what I keep telling myself, anyway). Instead of chucking them, they’d rather have other people give them a go.

And a “go” is what I’m giving them.

Part of me wonders if this is OK or not. I mean, I’ve seen books show up down there and a week later they are gone, never to reappear again. So someone has either done what I’m doing (I’m always late to the party) or they’ve just taken the book and made it their own—keeping it, lending it away, giving it away, etc.

The entrepreneurial part of me thinks I should set up a formal system for people to bring down ALL the books they don’t want anymore. I’ll do the selling for them and then I can figure out a portion of the profits to give back to people—almost like my own little business. This would be a lot of work though. And when the current system is working out so well, why change anything?

So far I haven’t sold any of the books I nabbed from the laundry room/book depository, but I know I can’t have a sidewalk sale around this neighborhood because it has the potential to upset the people who left their books down there. And the potential for hilarity to ensue.

Have I gone too far in my mad quest for a new computer or is this totally acceptable? I’m curious to hear what other people have to say about this. Do you think I should formally start a service to get people to actively give me their books (it’s a big building) and make even more money that way?

Comment away!

There is a follow-up post that clarifies some of the details of this post and addresses some of the comments people have left behind here.

This post was included in the Money Hacks Carnival over at Your Money Relationship. Check out the cool “Office” theme he’s put together!


19 Responses to “Am I a Thief or an Entrepreneur?”

  • bluntmoney Says:

    Yup, I think selling books left by people for others to enjoy is going too far. Now if it were in a big pile saying “Free! Please take!” that might be different. Asking them and offering to split profits would be good though.

  • FFB Says:

    Just a bit too far. If your neighbors ever find out it could cause the whole system to end due to mistrust. Maybe what you can do to make it a little better is replace the books you took with other books? Since it’s for people to read you could leave good books that maybe aren’t worth as much to sell. Still sketchy though. Another option is offer to buy them from the people leaving them. Most would probably be happy to get rid of them anyway and you could still turn a profit.

  • David Says:

    Way too far. I don’t even know what to say, really. Just thinking it is going too far, and stealing to get yourself something new is just plain wrong and incomprehensible.

  • Debt Hater Says:

    I mean, if you do it, you haven’t broken any laws and as long as the folks in the building don’t know it, no harm done. I think it’s going too far because people in my building do the same thing. I grabbed two books just to read them. Once I was done, I donated them to my local library (though I probably should have just left them back downstairs). The point is that people may want something new to read and this is a super convenient way to go about it. If you snatch all the good ones before other people get a chance… well, it just doesn’t seem right.

  • QL Girl Says:

    Ditto. Its a little dishonest for me…although I like both suggestions given: 1) replace each book with any $0.30 books you may have (and aren’t worth going through the trouble of selling), or 2) set up your formal system. I’d probably give you my books….its such a hassle to post things online and then pack and ship them.

  • Lazy Man and Money Says:

    Yep, thief from me too. However, you may switch me into thinking otherwise if you bought some cheap, used paperbacks of quality learning books like Your Money Or Your Life, How To Win Friends and Influence People, or The Tipping Point, etc and put those in place of the $20 books you are getting.

  • Ellen Says:

    I wouldn’t go as far as to say you’re a thief but I think you know what you’re doing is unethical. (Otherwise you wouldn’t have written the post, right?) The intention of the shelf is for people to take the books for their personal use, not turn a profit on them.

    On the other hand, if you were to go to a used bookstore, scout for really good-looking used books being sold on the cheap and then sell them at a markup on Amazon, that would be different. Or if you saw someone selling a first edition on the street and bought it for $1 from them, knowing it might be worth more, that would be okay too.

  • Forest Says:

    As a former almost full-time bookseller, I know the feeling of seeing books as dollar signs. Even so, it’s still too far. When I started my new job and they were giving me a little tour of the office, one of the things they pointed out to me was the community bookshelf in the corner. I was tempted to do the same thing you’re doing, but I didn’t. There are plenty of sources for cheap or free books (craigslist, thrift stores). They’re not quite as convenient, but at least it’s not stealing.

  • Nut Says:

    I’m digging all the input so far, I don’t think I anticipated the overwhelming majority to be on the “thief” side. I’m gonna have to take some pics of the “shelf” so people can get a better idea of what I mean. As I re-read the post I realized that it sounds a lot “nicer” than it really is. Some people are literally throwing books away into this pile, and that’s where I grabbed some from.

    Still haven’t sold any so I guess my soul still has a shot.

    The suggestions are great too, and I’m seriously thinking of hitting up some used book stores to see if I can make it work.

  • Nut Says:

    Hey Forest, I used to work as at a publishing company and we had a whole room and several boxes of books. We had access to free books but with the specific detail that we were not to resell any of the books. I still have a bunch of them sitting in some boxes and those I will not sell. It’s illegal and I was asked specifically not to.

  • NCN Says:

    Why don’t you just put up a sign, and let folks pitch books that they no longer want into a bin or box? Then, sell those. If you just get junk, get rid of the sign, dump the books on the current pile, and be done with it. As far as selling the books in the current pile, that’s fishy to me.

  • Nut Says:

    I’ll be posting something to recap everything that has been said here real soon. Hopefully I’ll redeem myself with some of you!

  • Nut Says:

    OK, well I finally posted a “response” to this and I address some of the ideas left here in the comments. Check out the “sequel” post to read the exciting conclusion…

  • I Am Not a Crook…Part II Says:

    [...] week I wrote about the pile of books in my building’s laundry room and how I took some of these [...]

  • Your Money Relationship - Money Hacks Carnival #51 - The Office Edition Says:

    [...] Writer’s Coin presents Am I a Thief or an Entrepreneur? The overwhelming majority of the comments suggest a thief. Head over there and give your input. He [...]

  • tom Says:

    I think you should carry forward, and see if others want to give away their books for free. And then you turn around and sell it, but somewhere else so they don’t see it.

    Let’s face it, if they will give it away for free, it is either they don’t think others will pay anything for it or they are too lazy to try and sell it.

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  • Abraham Says:

    I think you should put up a sign, explaining that the books seem to be a community unspoken understanding that they are there for everyone’s enjoyment and insist others contribute and if they see something they must have to replace it with two more books or magazines. Maybe, this will be worth much more than the thousand bucks you need, it may be priceless to what may come about it. I think that it may bring people closer together in your building and make the shelf much more impressive!

  • Dude Says:

    People always seem to think they know why they do things, and often will give you sensible sounding reasons which seem to explain their decisions. After all, we like to believe that we exercise sound judgement, especially in the important decisions of our lives.

    I have come to believe that this is rarely true. I think that standard operating procedure for human decision making is to do what feels right to you at the time, and then to give logical
    sounding justifications for what you were already going to do anyway, whether you had justifications or not.

    So – if convincing yourself that other people are stealing books too, so its now alright for you to steal books makes you feel better, go for it. After all, you will do whatever you get away with, every time. And once you thin about all this, you’ll find you don’t have to care about why you do something.

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