A dream of osmosis…

After nearly two full months, I can honestly say I haven’t loved my time in the guest room. I’m sure the bed is perfectly serviceable for a weekend visit or maybe even for a week or two. Because we all light up the front of our houses like good suburbanites, there’s also way too much ambient light bleeding in the front windows. I tend to prefer near total darkness for sleep. I’m sure that’s something I could correct with updated curtains, but I’m determined to ride this out as a temporary expedient that doesn’t require the addition of blackout shades.

I won’t pretend this temporary relocation has been all bad, though. What I have enjoyed is sleeping in part of the library. The guest bedroom, you see, does double duty as the holding area for my to-be-read nonfiction pile. It’s a few hundred books I want to read coving just about all the high points – and many of the low ones – of western civilization. There are absolute shit tons of wisdom stacked in those volumes. I know it won’t transfer by osmosis, but having it that close at hand through the night is somehow comforting.

I suppose this means there will be bookshelves making their way to the master bedroom sooner or later. It won’t happen immediately, because I don’t even want to think of laying in bookcases until I can arrange to have the carpet replaced. Believe me when I say that’s the kind of thing you want to consider in advance before picking a new spot to accumulate a few hundred pounds of paper and glue and binding. You don’t really want to spend your time moving stacks and stacks of books more than once if there’s any reasonable way to avoid it.

So, that’s now another couple of projects tagged on to a list of things to do that never seems to get shorted. Must be one of those joys of home ownership I keep hearing about.

Six months to bend the curve…

I managed to sneak away from the homestead the Saturday before last to do a bit of old school book shopping. It felt good to be back on the hunt through towering stacks of warehoused volumes. I knew I didn’t find anything wildly rare or collectable. That’s the trouble with buying from book people. Even those who trade at the wholesale level, despite the massive number of items on their shelves, know what they have… and have probably paid someone to cull the stock for things that shouldn’t be sold off at half of their marked price. Still, filling a basket or two at Second Story Books is among one of life’s great pleasures. Their stock is unpredictable, but I never fail to walk away with items that close gaps in my collection or that will simply be a pleasure to read.

The real shock to my bookish system came when it was time to catalog my new finds and get them loaded up onto the to be read shelves. Thanks to the requisite poking around on Goodreads and LibraryThing, I learned that I’ve fallen significantly off the pace. By the mid-point of 2020 and 2021, I’d read about 40 books. This year, I’ve notched only 25. Those were Plague Years, of course, so it’s possible I’m simply reverting to the mean now that the world has stumbled along being open for business again. In 2018 and ’19 I was reading about 60 books a year so I’m on track to get close to those numbers.

In any case, I’m feeling that I’ve inexplicably let myself get distracted and not at all happy with the meager numbers I’m putting up. The to be read stack grows far too quickly to let the number of books being read slip too far. The solution, I think, is obvious… I’m going to have to quit being a post-plague social butterfly and get back to the ease and comfort of the days of “safer at home.” I’ve got six months left to bend the curve in the right direction.

Hunting season…

I haven’t done any proper book hunting since a few days after Christmas. Even that was more of an excuse to drop off a couple of boxes of my own discards than an effort to bring any more books into the house. The fact that I didn’t take more time then to pillage the shelves was probably the first, unheeded sign of the non-COVID sickness that struck me down a few days later. Since then, it’s been an occasional online order and walking through a couple of the local thrift shops while I was out to do other things. 

With our collective decision to operate as if the Great Plague is over, I suppose it’s time to get back into the habit. Subject to weather, my personal return to normal should be kicking off this weekend with a trip down to Anne Arundel County. The local historical association’s spring sale has been good to me over the last few years. The only thing that would keep me away is the steady rain currently in the forecast. My obsession with books doesn’t, as of yet, extend to waiting in line getting rained on for the opportunity to fight through low-roofs and narrow aisles of boxes for the opportunity to pick through items constantly being dripped on. A that point, better to spend an hour or two in a proper shop even at the risk of paying full retail. Either will likely scratch this particular itch until my annual birthday week buying binge.

On a related note, I’ve recently learned one of my favorite local used book sales – a fundraiser for Wilmington-based scholarship fund – has decided to throw in the towel. Until this spring it was held twice a year and consistently produced amazing books for pennies on the dollar of their retail value. According to their Facebook post, they’re facing a dearth of volunteers to keep the event running. It’s not surprising, but it is disappointing. I’ll miss their run-down storefront that opened into an Aladdin’s cave of the printed word once you got through the front door.

I’ve been feeding this addiction long enough to see a lot of these sales and shops disappear. It’s awfully rare to see one pop up unexpectedly. In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing that happen. In a world that didn’t have bills to pay, retirement to plan for, and in which I was slightly more insane, I’d lease a storefront or maybe a little warehouse space and offer to buy any book that came through the door for $1 a box or a $10 charitable donation receipt – Yes, yes, I know, I’d have to set up a legitimate charitable organization before offering to take tax-deductible donations… and then run a store and deal with people. That last bit alone ensures it’ll never happen. I’d never have the patience for it.

All these books that use to end up at sales and shops are going somewhere… probably directly to the nearest landfill or pulp paper buyer… I’d just like to get a fraction of them to pass through my hands and skim off the cream before they meet their otherwise ignominious fate. Wonder Book has a brilliant business model for this, but I’m hard pressed to figure out how to do it without it being a full time “day job,” needing to hire a staff, or it becoming a 30-hour a week side hustle. 

It’s a dream – a happy dream to be sure – but still, just a dream. Better to keep focusing on my niche and let the sellers and scouts keep doing their thing. It’s going to be one of those ideas that festers, though. As the shops and sales continue to disappear from the landscape, finding the good stuff outside the full retail or auction environment is going to go from rare to impossible. If I come up with a way to game that system that doesn’t involve opening my own business, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Information worth knowing…

For the last few years, I’ve been using Goodreads to manage my personal library. It’s a solid app, filled with reasonable functionality, and absolute scads “social” elements for readers and tie ins with most of the popular social media platforms. For basic cataloging, it filled the bill without much trouble. Still, at its heart, Goodreads is a social media platform and I found it increasingly limited when trying to tweak my ever-increasing pile of books.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been slowly transitioning over to LibraryThing and working through how to catalog and manage the books over the long term. I’ve finally gotten most of the basics covered – or at least got things broken down into the primal chunks. What I’ve read (763), what I have on the to be read pile (657), and what I still want to get my hands on in the future (207). The latter bit is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it will help me be a bit more selective and targeted as I hunt books in the future.

The next step is taking those big chunks and starting to build a little more granularity. Being able to drill down into more detail than just “History, Britain,” will be when I get an itch for something from a specific time period or topic. Getting the details sorted, though, looks like a project that could easily take months or years as I pick at it in free moments. Getting the level of detail I’d like to have will mean moving past the bulk edits of the last few weeks and dealing with smaller subsets and even individual touch points. It’s going to take time, but it feels like I’ve finally stumbled on a proper cataloging tool to really start getting a grip the collection from top to bottom.

Yes, it’s probably overkill, but I have every expectation that this bunch of books will continue to grow over the next 20-30 years. Coming to terms with how to keep it all straight (and avoid buying duplicates) feels like a worthwhile endeavor. Plus, if I hadn’t made the transition, I wouldn’t know that my stack of books is now just slightly shorter than the Taj Mahal. That’s information worth knowing. 

Comfortably at home…

Once upon a time, a three-day weekend invariably triggered a round of book hunting. I’d slip out to shops from the Philly burbs all the way down to Rockville.

Here in the 3rd plague year, I’m just having trouble finding that level of motivation. It’s not that I like the books any less, but that I hate people all the more. Obnoxious behavior in public seems to be the rule rather than the exception. It’s impossible to be out and avoid the Karens and Kens insisting common sense, decency, and decorum aren’t things they need. Decent behavior is, obviously, just for other people and not for these self-important twatwaffles.

Most of the mask “mandates,” to the extent that they were ever really enforced, have fallen, but good sense along with both my personal physician and RN sister still strongly recommend them. I’ll defer to their knowledge of best practices over taking unsolicited advice from the average American politician. I’ll also fully admit, though, hours of browsing for books fully masked with glasses periodically steamed over, frankly, just isn’t fun. 

I miss spending a good part of these long weekends picking through endless stacks. I’ve gotten out a few times since cold weather set in, but not often – and those trips rarely resulted in real treasures, even if they coughed up plenty of good basic reading material. As a former boss of mine was overly fond of saying, the juice simply isn’t worth the squeeze. 

Someday I’m sure it will be again, but just now I’m perfectly willing to rely on the internet to let me get my book fix either until the browsing environment gets more fun or I recover some lost motivation. It’s hard to say which of those things may happen first. Between the general fuckery of people as a group and the persistent low-level threat of plague, assuming it happens at all, could be out of order on its face. There are way worse ways to spend three days than comfortably at home.

A bit too high…

I’ll be the first to admit that my Instagram feed is not generally what most people would consider “wholesome.” It’s thick with porn stars, egirls, and instathots. Thankfully I don’t subscribe to that particularly American brand of puritanism that shrieks and clutches its pearls at even the mention of the human body. 

Occasionally, though, some other things break through the Insta-clutter. A couple of nights ago I was scrolling through my feed and I landed on a photo of row after row of books. It was a real thing of beauty – formal, but comfortable; well loved, but equally well maintained. 

“I want something like that when I build a house,” I mumbled to myself before filing it away for reference should the occasion ever present itself to build my own book room from the foundation up. 

Upon closer inspection, of course I want something like that. The picture that so fascinated me was of the royal library in the Palace of Versailles. 

It’s good to be ambitious. Goals beyond food, shelter, and procreation are what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. I fear, however, in this case I may have set my sights just a bit too high. 

Normal again…

Being sick is, by popular consensus, not fun. The worst symptom of my recent crud was an achingly short attention span. I couldn’t focus on anything. As a result, TikTok became my best friend. Thirty to 60 second clips were manageable and, if not exactly entertaining, helped pass the time. I usually read away whatever down time I find, but getting through more than a page or two at a sitting was pure agony. Even when I forced it, I couldn’t remember what happened two paragraphs in the past.

The old reliable focus has slowly come back over the last few days. In fact, last night was the first time in two weeks that reading wasn’t misery. The words spooled out, pages turned, and whole chapters were swallowed up by the evening. This morning I was even able to remember that ground I covered. It’s a relief. 

Being able to comprehend complex ideas and story lines is a profoundly underappreciated skill. I didn’t realize how much I’d miss that until I couldn’t do it.

Hooray for being “normal” again.

Culling the stack…

Before I fell ill with whatever crud wore me down after Christmas, one of the major items I managed to knock off my to do list was culling the to-be-read shelves. You can count on one hand the number of times I’ve willingly let things fall out of the collection. Buy enough books over enough years, though, and things have a way of accumulating. Despite your best efforts, some of those things turn out to be real dogs. 

I’ve never been shy about buying a nicer volume to replace something I already have on the shelf, so some of them were duplicates I was happy to move elsewhere. Occasionally I’ll look at something occupying shelf space and realize no matter how much time I have, I’m never going to read it. I hate to admit it, but when you start approaching 2000 volumes in your average home, space starts to become something of a premium. That’s all a way of saying that even for me there are good reasons to sometimes get rid of books.

I filled the back seat of the truck with my culls and cast offs. I’d waited until the volume justified taking a minor road trip. The local shop might have offered a few dollars for the lot – hardly worth going there versus just donating the bunch to Goodwill. I don’t blame the local shop owner. He knows his business and that he’s the only game in town when it comes to buying used books. Judging from the unopened boxes sitting in his aisles and stacked in every foot of space the fire marshal will let him get away with, getting inventory is never a problem.

The trade off with taking my batch on the road is that I’m sure to spend far more filling the gas tank than I’ll recoup from selling everything I’m hauling with me. There was nothing special or rare in the mix and the return on most used books is pennies on the dollar. It’s just part of the obsession that you accept when you’re into it deeply enough.

Knowing I wouldn’t even recoup my travel cost was worth it though, to hand them off to a proper bookman at one of the great east coast used book shops. They’ll get most of these good reading copies placed into the hands of someone who will appreciate them. Better that than dropping them somewhere where they’ll inevitably end up turned to pulp in the hands of a paper recycler.At my level of collecting, it’s not about turning a profit. With the exception of a few high points, all I’ll manage to do is make sure most of the books here are able to survive another generation or two into the future. If I’m lucky, one or two of them might survive to have a bicentennial and find their way into the hands of someone who loves them like I have. That’s not bad compensation for the time, effort, and expense. 

Of scouts and resellers…

I go to a respectable number of book sales each year. It’s not an every weekend thing, but six or seven times a year, one catches my attention sufficiently to make venturing off the homestead for it potentially worthwhile. The ones I like to dig into are usually put on “friends of the library” or other organizations who specifically take in book donations – they’re specialists rather than “used stuff” generalists. If I happen to be passing by an estate sale or yard sale, I might stop out of curiosity. I don’t generally seek those out even when someone advertises “lots of books.” It seems my definition of “lots” is wildly different than the average person’s. Nine times out of ten, what’s on offer is a box or two of kids’ books or beat to hell paperbacks.

There used to be a breed of person who frequented these sales called a book scout. They knew their business. They knew their points, editions, conditions, and values and could evaluate a book on sight. The best of them seemed to have a sixth sense about whether there was real value in a book – whether even the newest ultra-modern was a $2 reading copy or a $200 first edition.

Time seems to be replacing proper book scouts by roving bands of resellers. They ply their trade online, making their money in arbitrage – buying for $2 and selling for $3. Their business seems to be one of volume over quality. They’re hell with a barcode scanner and figuring out the spread on Amazon. They collectively seem to know price, but not value. 

These resellers are in there like vacuums sucking up all oxygen in the room – sitting on the floors, sprawled out, making obstacles (if not spectacles) of themselves, trying to scan every barcode in sight. It feels tawdry somehow. There’s not a bit of old-fashioned book scouting about any of it. They surely passed over the $200 book I walked out with for $10 last weekend because it simply didn’t have a barcode to scan. It must be more cost effective to sell 200 books on a $1 margin, but there’s no soul in it.  

I don’t think these guys are evil. They wouldn’t be doing what they do if there wasn’t a market for the $3 book. Increasingly, though, I wonder if my days at the sales are numbered. At some point the sheer aggravation of dealing with them won’t be weighed out by the utter joy of making a real score. There’s a big part of me that would rather just pay a dealer something close to retail than continue to trip over 101 resellers.

Closing a gap…

I’ve been chasing one particular book for about eighteen months. First edition later printings seemed to have a floor around $100. True first editions in fine condition regularly list in the range of $400 and up. I could have snapped one of those up, but it would have blown the book budget for several months all to hell and back.

I have auto-searches on several used book sites that send me periodic emails on when this book shows up for sale. A fresh 1st edition (albeit a 5th printing) showed up on the list this morning.  With an asking price of a mere $65 it’s obviously not the perfect copy I’d like to have, but it is signed, so there’s that going for it. 

I’ve dealt with this particular bookseller before. They’re a reputable outfit running both a respected storefront in the District and a vast discount warehouse I’ve come to love picking through when I have hours to spend wandering their stacks. That’s pretty much the only reason I took a wild chance on a book that otherwise seemed to be markedly underpriced based on its description and photos. 

The trouble with online book sales, like everything else that arrives in a cardboard box, is that you never really know what you’re getting. Based on past experience, I’m cautiously optimistic that what shows up will be something close to “as described.” Worse case, in a week or two I’ll have slightly overpaid for a nice, signed reading copy of Dunning’s Booked to Die… and the search can continue for a true first that doesn’t crush the budget. It doesn’t seem like I’ll have any trouble selling off my new copy to help defray the cost if I ever run across a reasonably priced copy.

As always, I stumble along the fine line between wanting a collection that looks good on the shelves, but that I’m not afraid to take down and fondle a little. At least now my Cliff Janeway series won’t look like a gap-toothed smile.