The Guilt Merry-Go-Round

Having an honorable life isn’t always easy when you buy used merchandise.  You don’t know where most of it came from, meaning you don’t know whether it was stolen before you got your hands on it.

Some people look the other way — whether the goods are new or used — and refuse to pass up a bargain on something they want or need.  They may inspect the item and hope there are no bed bug eggs in it, but they don’t think about legal or ethical problems in the supply line.  They buy new items from the back of someone’s truck, and feel satisfied the cheap case of name brand merchandise is legit. They buy women’s fine jewelry from some guy in a bar, and choose to believe his story (which he repeats five or six times, for emphasis) that his recently deceased mother would want him to sell her engagement ring to help pay for her funeral.

I’ve pondered these issues.  I feel I can live with myself because I don’t knowingly buy merchandise that shouldn’t be sold.  There’s an exception, though.  A couple of times, I’ve bought San Francisco Library books at thrift stores for the sole purpose of returning those books to the library.  That isn’t an act of heroism.  It’s common courtesy.  The books didn’t have WITHDRAWN stamps, and when library employees scanned the bar codes the items registered as part of the library’s current collection.

Buying hot merchandise unknowingly is a real concern.  This happens more easily to most of us now because of internet sales.  If there are identifying marks, we don’t see them until after we’ve bought something that may or may not have belonged to the seller.

Late last year, I logged onto a major (or, at least big) online marketplace and bought a fine 2001 biography by Barry Werth titled The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin — A literary Life Shattered By Scandal. 

The copy that was delivered had markings for a library three thousand miles away, and no WITHDRAWN stamp.  It could have been an oversight, if a librarian was overworked and missed that one detail while culling the book collection.  However, if the internet allows more stolen library books to be unloaded on the general population, there’s also an advantage — if you give a rat’s tailfeathers in the first place.  You can pull up the catalogue of the library in question.

I did that, and discovered that my copy of The Scarlet Professor was indeed stolen.  I returned it promptly, via USPS.  Promptly after reading it.

I found a bubblewrap-lined envelope, and addressed it meticulously. A short letter was enclosed, explaining that I had bought the book and didn’t know it was stolen.  Then I apologized for the short delay in returning it because I had read it.  The part about reading a stolen book made me feel like a monster, and whoever opened the envelope was forced into the role of Parish Priest, hearing a confession.

The jerk never replied, so to this day I don’t know whether I received absolution.  Although I personally have no religious background, Catholics should feel my pain.  At least the tracking info for the package confirmed it was delivered.

That book was mailed First Class, not Media Rate.  You’re not supposed to use Media Rate if a note is enclosed in a book.  In spite of my honesty with the postal clerk, reading Barry Werth’s masterpiece when it was all by its lonesome self in a cold, cold world seemed unforgivable.

For a used book, that darned thing ended up costing a fortune, in terms of angst even more than money.

But I digress.

This week, a used DVD with library markings arrived in the mail.  No WITHDRAWN stamp.  The library’s online catalogue indicated that it is, in fact, withdrawn.

You can’t imagine how relieved I feel.


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