Saturday, February 27, 2021

On Owning a Whole Mess of Books

I hope you all know that we are purchasing second-hand books again. Our system has changed, and we’re still not able to just be a drop off place for cartons of your discards, but if you follow the guidelines, some of your books in resellable condition will find a good home. Email us for more information – Here's a link to our guidelines.

Like all of you, or at least those of you that still love reading and collecting physical books (retronym alert!), my bookcases are full. There are only two options – create some more bookshelves or cull the collection. The first option isn't really an option.

To my thinking, there are three categories of books. The first is books that I haven’t read (one narrow bookcase, a shelf on a second case, and various random piles), the second is books that I have finished, but are not in the permanent collection (not a great way to store these – they are placed in piles in front of permanent collections titles of another case), and the third is the permanent collection, spread throughout the house from the kitchen (food books, a shelf of home repair, a few shelves of travel titles), the living room (most oversized books), the dining room (fiction) and our guest bedroom (most other categories of nonfiction, plus all the staging). My partner also has books, but I am not responsible for them.

If I decide to pass a book on after I read it, great! But if I think it goes in the permanent collection, it means I have to get rid of a title that I thought was in the permanent collection, but has been, as they say in museums, decommissioned. Sometimes these books are falling apart, with the newsprint-quality of paper disintegrating and the binding broken. That decision is easy. Or is it? I still have my mass market Anne Tyler novels, and most of them cannot handle much handling. Did you know Playboy had a paperback book imprint? Others are advanced copies, which by the bookseller code, shouldn’t be sold. There are only so many Little Free Libraries in the world, and I’m well aware that some of these books might just be taking up space, with the potential market for a reader being limited.

I am lucky in that I can try to sell my second books at Boswell. But I’m well aware that books I treasured might not have an audience and might go straight to the $5 cart, and if / when we’re open under normal circumstances, the cart outside where books are even cheaper. Some of these books have higher internet value, and we’ve noticed folks buying books with the obvious intent of re-selling them. At Schwartz, we did do more online second-hand sales, but we’ve not really found time to make it work at Boswell. Maybe someday.

What do I choose for my permanent collection? For a select number of authors like Barbara Pym, I have all their published work. For others, I just keep my favorites. Often there’s one title from an author. One of the rules I try to enforce unsuccessfully is that a book should be kept if you are pretty certain you will read the next book by that author. This strategy works for fiction, not so well for nonfiction, which is more subject driven. Last year I read If I Had Two Wings, the follow-up story collection (by 28 years) to the late Randall Kenan’s Let the Dead Bury the Dead. So thrilled to see this new book as a National Book Critics Circle finalist. You can watch our interview with the late Randall Kenan here. I’m still waiting for a companion book for ZZ Packer's Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. It’s only been 17 years!

One other struggle I have is when to discard books in the staging area, the ones I haven’t read but always hoped to get to. There are some great books in here, classics in beautiful editions like Middlemarch and Moby Dick. Am I really going to read Moby Dick? And sometimes they are contemporary books where I thought I would get around to them but didn’t. I try to have a rule along the lines of you buy it, you read it (or at least gift it), but that just doesn’t always happen. I’m hoping to read Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous for our book club, two-to-three months after it comes out in paperback, but that date has been delayed more than once. And here’s where I confess that I never read All the Light You Cannot See. But I own one!

Both the permanently shelved and the staged titles have one type of book I common, where I bought the book, hosted the author, and had the book signed. Sometimes it’s just a signature (that’s easy), but most of the times it’s signed to me. Every so often, I’ll consign the book to Boswell for resale, only to have someone bring the book back to me saying it’s mine. Once an author did this. So now I put a sticky-note on the signature page where I write, “Alas, even booksellers run out of shelf space.”

More bookshelf philosophy in this 2019 Journal Sentinel story.

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