I took a trip to Arkansas a couple of weeks ago, ostensibly as a vacation (though my employer had better ideas), and while there, something interesting happened…

Mom and I have a long history of visiting used bookstores. From the Book Swap (now a grassy field… not even a suggestion that there was ever a building there), to Recycled Books in Denton, various Half Price Books locations in the Metroplex, Dickson Street Books in Fayetteville, AR, Gardner’s Books and Comics in Tulsa, and many others. When she and I go somewhere together, I search the internets for “best used bookstore in [wherever]” and we go check the top result or three out. We’ve found some great stuff.

So we were in The Frugal Bookworm in Tulsa. In any other city, it would be a fairly competent paperback bookstore, mostly fiction, some self help. But with Gardner’s just a couple of miles away, we both wondered how this particular bookstore makes it.* [Note: All pictures are from Dickson Street Books.]

Anyway, I was hunting through the stacks and picked up a paperback by a well-known spy or mystery author (I don’t remember exactly which book or author). It was marked $3.00, and I thought to myself “will I get $3.00 worth of enjoyment out of this?” I looked at the page count: 329 pages. That’s, what, less than a penny a page… it’s probably worth that, I guess. 

I hesitated for a few moments before putting it back on the shelf.

(Not that it matters, but I ended up buying a couple of other paperbacks: a Jonathan Kellerman novel from the sale table ($1.00), a Mack Bolan confection ($1.00) and a Dick Francis mystery ($2.00).**)

After the bookstore, we both wanted some ice cream or something, and we ended up at a Sonic. Mom wanted something that they have at Sonic locations in Arkansas, but it wasn’t on the menu in Tulsa, so she decided to skip it. I had a small cookie dough blast thing. It cost about $3.50.

I offered Mom some, but she declined and I ate the ice cream thing fairly quickly. She asked me how it was, and I replied, “Not bad…” I thought about the $3.00 spy novel that I left on the shelf.  “But if I’m honest, I doubt I got $3.50 worth of enjoyment out of it.”


Like a flash, the potential of this mode of thinking/reasoning hit me. Now I can’t, in good conscience, monetize my enjoyment, but I sure can roughly estimate how much a potential experience might be worth by comparing it to a known value.

  • Quick Trip has a soft serve ice cream cone that’s $0.49, or .53 after tax. [Edit: the price rose to $0.79 or .99, which is definitely not worth it. The rest of the below still applies, more or less.] Depending on the employee and location, the cone has 4-6oz of soft serve in/on it. So it’s fairly easy to see that 8oz of ice cream, blended with some fake cookie dough bits ( a Sonic Blast) isn’t worth $3.50.
  • Assuming whatever level of enjoyment out of the QT ice cream, would I get an equivalent amount of enjoyment from a $3 paperback? Maybe, maybe not, but when the paperback is $1 or $2, it’s an easier answer.

So. When contemplating a purchase, of almost anything (excluding necessities, I guess, though you could extend it there too, perhaps), think: Will I get n Quick Trip ice creams (or the known value of your choice) worth of use/enjoyment/whatever out of this?*** 

For example:

  • a used, mass market, bestseller spy novel: easily worth $2.00 (4 QT ice creams); but maybe not $3 (6 ice creams)
  • a three pack of Lomo Color 400 at $14… 28 ice creams worth of enjoyment ? Probably.
  • a $50 contribution to someone’s GoFundMe. Will I get 100 ice creams worth of self satisfaction from the donation?**** Hummm.
  • a $100 photobook… 200 ice creams worth of inspiration/aesthetic interest? Maybe, but probably not.
  • a replacement for my currently broken, again, LC-A? That’s as much as $150 for a clean used one, and given the enjoyment I’ve had over the past 5 or 6 years with my current one, honestly, that sounds like a bargain. But then I consider how many times I’ve had to repair it and the cost of accessories… That’s 4 or 5 self repairs, plus $125 for a repair trip to Croatia,^ plus $100 for the Instant Back, and the initial $200 I paid for it. That’s probably $800-$1000 all told, if you compensate me for my frustration, for 42 rolls of film and 19 packs of Instax…. roughly $16/shooting event (roll or pack) just for the camera (on the high side) and not including the cost of film or processing. Was it worth it? I honestly don’t know. Is it worth it to buy another one? No idea, and expect me to explore this further, though maybe not in this forum.
  • roof racks for the Alltrack… at ~$300.00, would I get 600 ice creams worth of use out of them? Honestly, probably not, and they’d probably lower my gas mileage to boot.
  • an iPhone Xs… worth 2000 QT ice creams? Hummm… I’m totally choked and frustrated by the 16gb in my SE, but the phone/computer itself is fine for my purposes, and the frustration I feel from the lack of space is sporadic and easily solved by removing Instagram or some other no-value-add/time wasting app.

This remains a somewhat foggy notion, and I appreciate feedback. Maybe it’s useful; maybe it’s stupid. I don’t know, but it’s helped me avoid spending several hundred dollars already.^^ This way of thinking does cost a bit of time to run the calculus, thus adding a delay to any given purchase that can help avoid spur-of-the-moment or impulse things, so maybe that’s valuable, at least. Let me know.

* A clue: Mom has a friend in Tulsa who loves used bookstores, but has never been to Gardner’s, because “it’s in a bad part of town.” The area appears to be light industrial mixed with some low income housing, sorta like a cleaned-up Haltom City or something, so I don’t really get it, but if enough residents feel that way, a much smaller bookstore near-enough to OSU is probably welcome.

** Actually, Mom bought them, I think. She had a larger stack of books from I don’t know who all.

*** where n is Dollar amount, divided by 0.5. So, for a small Sonic Blast, the answer is a resolute “no.” (is a small Sonic blast worth 7 Quick Trip ice creams? pshaw.) But I bet an early Dick Francis novel is easily as enjoyable as 4 Quick Trip ice creams (but maybe not 6 or 7).

**** This trivializes charity, and I hope to give charity solely for the sake of Allah, and expecting only a reward from Him, but still.

^ The repair trip resulted, after 5 months of sporadic use, in a stuck shutter/weak battery connection due probably to something they did—I think they mentioned something about oiling the shutter (a no no), but I can’t find the email now—though it does have a shiny new spool (completely unusable without that) and the ghost mod on the bottom plate, so…

^^ Thinking back, I backed out of a few Kickstarters over the summer because I realized I probably wouldn’t use the thing enough to justify the $300 or $500 for it, so this is something that’s been percolating in my for awhile, but the insight here is to compare a known quantity (a quick trip ice cream cone) with an unknown quantity (enjoyment of a paperback book; usefulness of a new camera or phone or something; or whatever of whatever). And that known value makes the calculation much easier.

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