“Somewhere, they’re meeting on a pinhead…”

Just when I start to feel bad for viewing legislative “emergencies” with skepticism, disinterest, and disdain, along comes a pearl like the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which was hastily passed last year after the brouhaha about lead paint on toys. As it turns out, the breadth of this law and its interpretation by the Consumer Products Safety Commission have potentially disastrous implications for EBayers, antiques dealers, clothing makers, small business owners, and other industrious folks. Tim Gebhart at Blogcritics explains how the new law also governs the sale of used children’s books:

Under the CPSIA, a children’s product is one designed or intended primarily for children 12 years of age or younger and the guide specifically includes books in its list of such products. The guide does say, though, that the products that can be sold include “Children’s books printed after 1985 that are conventionally printed and intended to be read, as opposed to used for play.” Plainly, the CPSC believes the law applies to children’s books printed before 1985.

What, then, is a used book store to do if it has such a book? Here are the “practical” options, according to the CPSC:

— Test the book;
— Refuse to sell it, which means disposing of it if already in inventory;
— Using “your best judgment” based on knowledge of the product; or,
— Contact the manufacturer.

I can summarize it more easily: test or toss.

Thrift stores owners, librarians, and book dealers have scrambled to understand what this nonsense means for them. Delightfully, the American Library Association has declared that the law doesn’t apply to them unless Congress tells them otherwise. Meanwhile, Gebhart notes an exception in the CPSC’s voluminous guidelines:

Of course, there is one other option not in the CPSC’s list. According to the CPSC guide, used “vintage children’s books … sold as collector’s items” are exempt because they are primarily intended for children. I’m guessing, though, that renaming the children’s book section “Collectibles” probably won’t cut it.

It’s a clever notion, but let me offer something even better. Years ago, while researching a now-dated piece for Salon, I learned that even though the sale of first-class relics—i.e., actual bits of saints’ bodies—is prohibited by canon law, it’s fine to sell a reliquary and then throw in the relic as a “gift.”

The charming dishonesty of this loophole notwithstanding, rare book dealers can learn a few tricks from latter-day simoniacs. If, for example, I were selling a $4,800 signed, first-edition set of The Chronicles of Prydain, I’d update my listing to reflect post-CPSIA reality: that the lucky buyer who agrees to pay $4,800 for a lovely (if slightly used) cardstock Amazon.com bookmark will also receive a rare set of autographed novels—an elaborate bookmark-holder offered purely as a gift.

As a medievalist, I’m committed to the prospect that Jesuitical hair-splitting can shield book dealers from official attention and delay their persecution by sputtering bureaucrats. Much of the CPSIA is probably unenforceable, but I love the image of a hapless prosecutor forced to argue from first principles against centuries-old casuistry. Having responded with all due dignity, the rest of us can take up worthier pursuits: gnawing on lead-lined books and arguing over how many angels can dance on our legislators’ tiny, tiny heads.

4 thoughts on ““Somewhere, they’re meeting on a pinhead…”

  1. Well said! (I’m a sucker for a gratuitous TMBG reference.)

    Sadly, CPSIA doesn’t go in for Jesuitical hair-splitting. It just pulls out its guns and mows down your Jesuits. Free gifts with purchase are still being “distributed in commerce” and are therefore subject to CPSIA’s requirements.

    BTW, I will join your galangal restoration crusade. On Friday I will go shopping and see if I can get myself a duck and some galangal.


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