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How do you dispose of part of a library you’ve had for 50 years without it turning into a shredding exercise or a book burning?
It ain’t easy.
After 25 years, I moved from Caledon, Ont., near Toronto, to Waterloo, a city an hour away in Southern Ontario. I had a library of more than 3,000 books and 12 drawers of files and I decided to reduce those numbers. I am a writer, educator and reader, and I wanted my books to go to good homes.
The divestiture was not pretty.
It was complex, time-consuming and disheartening.
It was, as Anthony Quinn said of marriage in Zorba the Greek, a literary version of “the complete catastrophe.”
You can’t walk into your library and throw out that particular shelf, much less the whole shelving unit or that wall of books or everything in that file cabinet. Or every book in a category or genre or even a whole category.
You must look at each volume and decide whether it stays or goes and if it goes, where it should go. Or, to whom it goes.
We are all familiar with the recent disintegration of the publishing industry in its various forms. Smaller book publishers going out of business or swallowed by big ones, they, in turn, taken over by larger publishers and almost all engulfed by huge European publishers.
Newspapers are dying or scrambling for revenue and readerships, so they can do their essential democratic work. Hundreds of dailies and weeklies going by the wayside replaced by digital versions. Or not replaced at all.
People find hard copies of books too heavy to read in bed, or too heavy, period.
The trend is the publication of fewer physical, traditional books and the inexorable rise of digital.
I had the fantasy that many people would want my books.
I created semi-bibliographic lists: history (North American, European, world); social commentary; philosophy; psychology; psychiatry; film and television (production, history, criticism, culture, directors); theatre: (acting, directing, production, history, plays from many countries); international literature; etc.
The head of the sociology department at an Ontario university who operates a book-sourcing and sales business was enthusiastic for sales, given my lists. After six months he had sold one book of 300: The Neurosis in the Light of Rational Psychology by A.A.A. Terruwe.
I tried the local (Toronto) universities and colleges. Not only did they not want to buy any books or give credit for a tax savings, only one bothered to reply.
I sent the film list to a national film-training school in Toronto that has Norman Jewison on its board. A woman called me, extremely apologetic. She said that although they had excellent training facilities, they could not, apparently, afford a library, or even find the space (a room) to start one.
I thought of sending the books to the Inuit in Canada’s North, but was stymied because earlier, similar attempts by several accounts had failed for various literary, financial and sociological reasons, as was the case with attempts to send the books to Africa.
Finally, I approached my town library.
They were “delighted” to take any books for their annual book sale as long as there were “not many hard covers or any paperbacks over five years old.”
Regarding the hardcovers, they said people did not want them any more. They were “too heavy.” Was it the too-weighty content or was it the books’ heft? The heaviness. Everybody has suddenly turned weak in the arms.
I assured them the books were not throwaway beach books. Most were excellent books by well-known and respected writers in their respective fields and had information not readily available, or the books were out of print. But the information was solid.
The librarian said people used Google now. I asked why they were in the library business if that was the case. No adequate reply.
They did want paperbacks but none older than five years. I asked them if the information was useless after five years. Or were the novels now unusable, considered out of date? The authors not talented? The books not enjoyable?
I received no sensible reply to that question, either.
Reluctantly, I gave them (and other libraries) about 60 boxes, each holding about 20 books, carefully sorted by genre, etc. They practically gave them away at their annual book sale.
To raise money to buy books.
I approached a bookstore owner in Stratford, Ont., to whom I had offered to sell books a year earlier.
He said the book industry was down, he couldn’t afford it, couldn’t find space to store them and could operate his excellent store only because he lived above the place. He was right.
I thought he could sell books on theatre and TV since it is the home of the Stratford Festival and gets thousands of adult visitors who love the arts, plus thousands of school kids who come to see the plays. He said if 15 kids come into the store, one or two will look at some books – everyone else is on a digital device and pays zero attention.
I gave him 30 boxes of books on the arts.
Then I took him 10 more. Later, I took 10 more.
I have more for him. Free.
I hope he finds buyers. I hope you do, too, or at least appreciative recipients, when you downsize your library.
Don’t count on it.
A daughter said, “It’s the same with everything, Dad, antiques, silverware, furniture, nobody wants the old stuff.”
True, except when they do, which might happen in a decade or so when books and “old stuff” come back into favour. It could be cyclical, like furniture styles and shirt collars. Maybe.
There is some good news: Amazon has opened a physical bookstore; many independent bookstores struggle but survive; many students (most?) prefer traditional paper books (they, like countless other people, prefer the feel of them, the smell of them, the pure physicality of them. They also like to be able to write in them, turn the pages and so on).
So, yes, there are signs that the book is not dead.
But don’t try to sell them.
And you’ll have a hard time trying to give them away. I managed to divest myself of more than 1,200 books and 37 bookcases without totally abandoning them. I sold about four of the bookcases. One of the books.
It didn’t feel good.
Frank Daley lives in Waterloo, Ont. (with fewer books).