As the owner of two book shops, both of which sell used and new books, I am frequently called upon by individuals who have been tasked with cleaning out someone else’s home, either because of a death, or because the homeowner must move to a smaller residence or to a care facility. An essay by Andrew D. Scrimgeour in The New York Times Book Review (“Handled With Care,” December 30, 2012) reminded me of this aspect of my business.
Mr. Scrimgeour is an academic librarian, and is called upon when other scholars have passed on and the heirs need help in disposing of a lifetime’s accumulation of books. My calling in life is a bit less lofty, but I could not help but note many similarities between his observations and my experiences. I do not make “house calls,” and so I do not get to observe the books in situ as he does, and know nothing about the way the owner organized his or her collection. His comment on the universality of dust certainly struck a chord; even packed in cartons and brought to my store, books seem to cling to the dust, or vice versa. (As one who is allergic to cats, I can confirm that cat hair attaches itself equally as well; I do a lot of hand washing, flu season or not.)
The cluelessness of the relatives attempting to deal with an inheritance from a lifelong reader is another common element. On some happy occasions, I will get a call from one of these relatives who is herself a reader, and appreciates the love that the owner had for his collection. These kind souls, not having space in their own homes for all the books they would like to keep, want them to find an equally loving and appreciative home. The more common situation is that of the designated house cleaner who has no interest in books and sees them as one more disposal problem. When I tell them that I will gladly look at the collection but cannot guarantee that I will take them all, they threaten me with “the dumpster.” To a book lover, this is attempted blackmail. I have had to learn to harden myself, however; I have a large store but even it has its limitations, and at least I will not personally be committing the crime of throwing books away.
Once the cartons have arrived, I have the pleasure of sorting through to make my selection. Again, the two types of heirs show their makeups. The book lover with no space at home scrutinizes each book one more time, and often takes several more back for his own collection. The harried housecleaner paces impatiently, or tries to help by piling books closer to where I am sorting until told that they are only slowing the process. (I learned early on to require these people to stay while I sort and choose; once they are gone, they will never return for the unusable volumes, and I must commit “the crime.”) When I have finished, the book lovers are happy for suggestions for the books I cannot use: other book stores, or the library book sale. The non-readers want to make “a donation” to me, just to get rid of them.
The personality of the original owner of the books now becomes apparent. The choices they made, of course, tell me what they liked to read, mystery or romance or history or politics or biography. It is always heartening to see how many readers there are with eclectic tastes. A mystery reader first and foremost, I will read in almost any genre if I have been told the writing is good, or if the topic interests me. It seems that most personal libraries have a preponderance of one category, happily mixed with selections from many others.
The physical condition of the books left behind gives another view of the reader. Some books have been read over and over, but cared for gently. Others look almost new, perhaps read only once. Other owners, sadly, may have enjoyed reading but did not much care for the beauty of the physical book; jackets are torn or missing, pages are bent, spines are cocked, and food and drink stains abound. Sometimes I think the books must have been purchased in a housewares store, displayed with the coasters. Frequently books are marked with underlining or marginal notes, detracting from their resale value but indicating what words made the reader pause for thought.
In this digital age, one can’t help but wonder how future inheritors of book collections will deal with them. The relative who has no interest in books will easily toss out the e-reader; it’s probably obsolete already anyway. The booklover who would love to enjoy some of Grandma’s treasured novels or see Uncle Joe’s notes in the margins will be out of luck, unless the account information and password has been bequeathed also. This sad state of affairs may not be as imminent as we thought. An article making the rounds this week from wsj.com (“Don’t Burn Your Books – Print Is Here to Stay”) indicates that electronic books are becoming one more, rather than the only, format for reading, and are not about to do away with printed books any time soon. As one who loves to hold a physical book when reading but uses an e-reader as an additional mode when it is more convenient, and who hears the same preference from customers every day, I was glad to know the trend is not so biased toward electronics as everyone predicted.
All of this reliving of my experiences in sorting out other readers’ libraries has me wondering what will happen to mine if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, but that’s a topic for another time.