Why are all the books wrapped in plastic?

A common question among the expat crowd is, “Why on earth are all the books in the bookstore wrapped tightly in plastic?”

Exhibit A:


Here we have one such book that I picked up at Fully Booked. (It’s In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made by Norman F. Cantor, in case you are interested in a morbid read along…)

When you come from a culture where it’s normal for people to go on dates to bookstores to spend hours reading the beginnings of a dozen books before settling on one to buy and take home, it’s rather surprising to walk into a bookstore to find every book in shrink wrapped. How on Earth are you supposed to decide on a book? Everyone knows the blurb on the back cover is insufficient! Even Amazon.com had to add the Look Inside function to finally win over the hard-core bookstore lovers.

So, what’s the protocol? And why do they do this in the first place?

Let’s start with the whys:

First of all, contrary to popular belief, the books do not arrive in this state. They come out of their shipping boxes as free as jaybirds. I have been present to witness this magical moment many times, and have taken the liberty of perusing some titles before they were locked away in their transparent prisons.

Some employee is then tasked with wrapping them all. Poor bugger.

Ok, so WHY, Expat Annie?? WHY?

1. Because it rains.
Despite what the insane traffic in metro areas would lead you to believe, most people who live here do not have cars. They get home from the bookstore by walking, or by standing around waiting for a jeepney or tricycle that will get them close to their home, and THEN walking. Chances are fair to middling for about half the year that people will encounter rain during their trip. It’s a service the bookstore provides so you can get your books home in one, dry piece.
You may even notice some bookstores sell giant rolls of plastic near the check-out counters. That’s because kids here are expected to wrap their school book covers in plastic to preserve them. No grocery-bag cover wraps here.

2. Because it will keep the mold and insects and butikis out.
Yes, most bookstores these days are well air conditioned, and so the air inside is dry. But it doesn’t take much here to get mold started. A couple of days with the aircon on the fritz can get a mold outbreak going. And once it starts, it will spread along a whole shelf of books and ruin them. Likewise, most bookstores are generally free from pests, but insects are everywhere here, let’s not kid ourselves, and butikis (geckos) are, too. They will stay away from people in the day, but at night, they are going to come out and climb around and leave little poopies everywhere, not to mention the types of crawlies that will eat the books themselves.
So, it preserves their stock while it’s in the store, and makes it easier to keep them all clean.

3. It’s not a public library.
Libraries here are few and far between. You may only see a handful of public libraries here, even if you do manage to travel widely through the country and stay many years. Add that to the fact that the price of a new book is prohibitively expensive for many people here, and you have the makings of a crisis for the book store owners. It’s not that they won’t let you read part of the book. (We’ll get to that.) It’s that there is a fear that so many people will want to read through part (or all) of a book to the point that it will become too damaged to be sold at its full price.

So, what is a fan of pre-reading to do?

Take the plastic off and do your pre-reading. They don’t care. It’s ok.

Now, I try to be a little conscientious about it, because I know that I am making, like, 30 seconds of work for someone for each book I unwrap. So, I will often take the time to check Amazon to see if the book has a Look Inside option. And I always read the back blurbs (at least on the paperbacks that have them), of course. If I want to poke around some more, though, I just take the plastic off. You can find a person to rewrap it if you aren’t going to buy it, or just leave it on the shelf with the wrap. It is that simple.

People sometimes feel awkward about this, like it’s against the rules. It’s not. I have a local friend who liked to sneak in and read the comic books without ever buying any, but he’d never do it unless someone else had removed the plastic wrap from them first. Taking the plastic off was more serious in his mind than consuming the media without paying for it. I don’t know what it is about that plastic wrap that worries people so much, but, honestly, it is ok.

If you do want an experience where you can just browse with abandon, look for a used book store. Book Sale is a common one that typically has a branch in most malls. They buy used books from the US and ship them over and sell them for a fraction of the price. Instead of paying P600 ($15) for a new paperback, you can generally pick a used one up for P50-P150 ($2-$3.) They are dealing with higher turn-over, cheaper stock, and fewer workers, so used dealers don’t bother with the plastic covers unless they get a high-demand title or an especially nice coffee-table style book.