Like prospectors sifting for gold, book dealers using electronic scanners comb through local library book sales for volumes to resell for profit on the Internet.

Worried that average library patrons looking for a hidden treasure or a cheap copy of a favorite novel are losing out to the high tech bargain hunters, volunteer groups that run many of the used book sales have begun debating whether to ban or limit the electronic devices.

The Friends group at the St. Louis Park library did banish scanners after losing patience with buyers who collected piles of books, scanned them and left castoffs in heaps around the room. Minnetonka also decided to bar scanners until noon during its one-day sales to give its readers first shot at books.

"It's a community event. A lot of people look forward to this,'' said Ellen O'Gara, president of the St. Louis Park Friends of the Library. "We want it to be a nice little community experience, not a free-for-all for whoever can grab the best stuff first.''

Regular readers appreciated the restriction in Minnetonka, said its Friends treasurer, Darlene Nelson. The sales have made more money as a result.

But most libraries have kept to a free-market approach -- though they often discuss what to do about resellers.

"We talk about it every year. It's a sticky wicket,'' said Jennifer Roach, president of the Friends of the Edina Library. "Dealers do put off some of our patrons. But at the same time they come and spend hundreds of dollars.''

The Edina Friends admit dealers with scanners, as do Champlin and Bloomington Friends groups and the Minneapolis Central Library bookstore. "Our policy is the store is open for anyone to come in and purchase books, and what they do with that after that is their business,'' book store manager John McCarten said.

Modern-day prospectors

Resellers have always been among the first in the door at community library sales, where used books donated by readers or withdrawn from library shelves typically sell for 50 cents to $1, with money raised going for library needs.

What's new is that there are more resellers and a lot of them buy big loads of books, said Margie Schuster, Hennepin County Library staff coordinator for 26 Friends of the Library groups.

"Online sales has just gotten to be a huge, huge business,'' Schuster said. "We are working hard trying to help our Friends groups figure out how to handle it.''

In some communities, library volunteers are trying to get a step ahead of resellers.

The Friends of the Edina Library, which typically makes $7,000 to $10,000 on each of its sales, displays high-quality fiction and special books on separate tables with prices set slightly higher.

Eden Prairie's Friends group has bought its own scanner to find the more valuable books and price them accordingly.

In Ramsey County, the Maplewood Library Friends group ships select volumes to Better World Books, which sells them to promote literacy and gives the library a cut.

A reseller's view

The hunt -- and the promise of profit -- drive the scanners, said Peter VonSien, 43, of Minneapolis. VonSien calls himself a "book scout,'' and he pays his mortgage buying used books and reselling them online.

Initially he bought and sold to pay for books he wanted to collect. But now VonSien has made it a business. He pays $40 a month for an up-to-date list of book resale values. "You can download onto a memory card a snapshot of the Amazon catalog,'' he said.

He stores this data on a handheld computer he bought for $200. To it he attaches a bar-code scanner, which also cost about $200, to read book bar codes into the computer, which then displays the book's value.

Before scanners, dealers checked prices by cell phone with friends who looked them up on the Internet. Getting the resale price of a book before buying it is critical because "it's really a competitive business to be in, and you really can't waste any money,'' VonSien said.

If a book's value is more than he would have to pay for it, VonSien usually buys it. But, he said, "You can find a ton of books. The trick is to sell them.''

He lists his finds with Amazon and other online book sites. When they sell, he packs and ships them out himself.

VonSien sometimes does sense resentment from shoppers and volunteers at sales. Problems arise when inconsiderate people hoard books, he said. He has seen some fill suitcases with books and sit in a corner to scan them.

"I think it would be best for everyone if libraries would say, like the first hour, no scanners allowed,'' he said -- or perhaps charge $10 or $20 to use a scanner at a sale.

As thorny as the issue can seem, strong demand for books is a good problem to have, Schuster said.

"Any money that is spent at a library book sale is going to benefit the library. The greatest problem in the world is that everybody wants your books.''

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711