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What’s it worth?


Part deux of the amazing journey that has been the last two months was going to my parents’ house to pack up twenty years’ worth of inventory. They had been waiting a year for me to come and get them so they could reclaim their basement and garage, both wall to wall books, with my Dad’s desk squeezed into a little tiny corner. I mean… so. many. books.

My mother and I sat for days checking the prices of the books, donating those that might not fetch enough to justify the expense of shipping them across the country. It was an endless process. I might be blissed out and zen one moment, and so anxious I was sick at my stomach the next. I flipped out on a daily basis, afraid I might not have time to get them shipped before the day I hoped to go see my best friend in NC or even before I had to be back in Wine Country a few days later so that I could be with the kids when my husband left for work travel. In a way it was traumatic. But then, even in the throes of it all, I would step back and look at it and think, Heck. Sitting in the comfy chair, surrounded by my parents’ books, plus their quirky book-related souvenirs and artwork?  Pleeeease don’t throw me into that briar patch!

We went through SO MANY BOOKS.  So many lovely, lovely books, from esoteric subjects to popular fiction, from beautiful valuable old ones, to an eclectic assortment of more recent ones.  What a delight it is to just sit surrounded by books. If it weren’t for the rush to get done I would have been in heaven. (Now that I have the books home, i pretty much AM in heaven when I am working with them. I hate leaving them to eat, even. The online bookselling weightloss solution?)

It was quite a journey emotionally, historically and culturally as well. Many of the books had touched my family in some way. These books represented estates sold by heirs after their loved ones died. They represented my childhood. My grandfather’s career in the early days of computers and digital communication.  My father’s career in conservation of natural resources. My mother’s aesthetic and good taste, and the books my parents shared with me when I was a kid,  Zane Grey westerns or the Kristin Lavransdatter series, my grandmother’s love of cats, angels, Sweden and all things British. They represented the history of and impact upon two generations who served in two very different wars.  The cultural shifts of the glamorous fifties, the erudite and earnest sixties, the droll and disillusioned seventies. They represented the wax and wane of the art of design and production of books and dust jackets.

So, so many good books, from the esoteric to the popular, from lushly decorated turn of the century books, to sophisticated block print effect of thirties dust jackets to fifties pulp fiction-esque covers to the photographic dust jackets of today. I got to know some of those dear departed whose estates wound up in my parents’ inventory pretty well too, like the old minister from Denbigh or the woman who had kept a few treasured childhood titles with her all her life, as evidenced by her name in the front growing from careful childish block letters to graceful to shaky yet still genteel cursive.

And here is what I learned.

The worth of a book is absolutely, stunningly, situational and arbitrary. The most authoritative book in some field of knowledge might not be worth a thing in the marketplace. A book someone in my family or one of those dear departed had treasured for its beauty, age or content, might be worth nothing- suffering the ignominous fate of the one cent or one dollar book..And here is the corollary: Even if your signed Stephen King is worth thousands of dollars, if nobody is willing to pay what it’s worth, its worth is greatest as a paperweight, or firewood as one of the authors in ‘the biz’ likes to say..

As a public librarian in a small southern town I found that people will donate their most tattered paperbacks, their moldiest hardbacks, their children’s battered and sticky picture books, their 30 years’ worth metric ton of National Geographics. We couldn’t use them in the library and sometimes people didn’t understand. It’s a BOOK! How could it not be worth putting in your collection? Someone could still read that! (That is a conversation for another day.) The pokiest, boringest, embarrassingly 70’s/early 80’s cover illustration-est book- It was like it was made of gold. it is touching the way people hold their books in such awe and feel they are ‘still good’, a real gift, when they give them away. It is also a storage nightmare.

In the selection process at my parents’, so many times I looked at a book and said Well that one’s a classic of Southern Literature or children’s literature or biography or what have you. Then we would look it up and it wouldn’t be worth the cost to ship it back to Wine Country, and we would send it back where it came from- the thrift store, the friends of the library book sale, and so on. And then I would skeptically look up a book in cheap brown or manila paperback- some ridiculous subject like the proceedings of a symposium on some little known woodpecker- and it would be going for a hundred dollars.

Go figure.

Donating so many  (SO MANY)  because they did not make the cut was incredibly humbling. People pass on, and their books survive them. Each book represents someone’s life, their education, their profession, their aspirations, their relationships with others, what they enjoyed, what they believed in.  Throwing away a book feels like disregarding a life.

As a friend pointed out, what a perfect new direction for me! Here is the irony. For many years I devoted my career, and then my household organizational efforts, to making sure we had just enough of just the right books, and ruthlessly discarding those that would no longer serve..Then, when I have finally been able to adjust to life outside, that is outside the library/information profession, I am covered in a veritable Alpine avalanche of BOOKS! It must be a circle of hell, having to choose between this book that made the cut and this book that didn’t. The IRONY!

But what a joy it is, too, to have my own collection that I can truly manage. As a library director I didn’t have time to manage like i would have liked (and had a good bit to learn about public library collections to boot). As a branch manager I was under the supervision of the collection developer up at Main Branch. Now- it’s mine, all mine!

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