Photo: Kia Feliciano
Some people in grade school were teacher’s pets. Not me. I was always the librarian’s pet. At my elementary school, the librarian made a practice of giving me first dibs on hot, new children’s books. I was a regular at the children’s book room at the local Carnegie library. At my insistence, the tiny, elderly queen of that establishment was a dinner guest Chez Lloyd on occasion.
Madison's Carnegie Free Library, decades before I discovered its second floor children's book room
So it makes sense that by my sub-teenhood I was spending much of my Saturday and after-school time cruising the book stores around the University of Wisconsin campus, in particular one that specialized in used and occasionally rare and out of print books. I didn’t know at the time that the owner, Paul Askins, was planning a crucial move to a new store closer to campus.
Facing the logistical nightmare of moving tens of thousands of volumes even a short distance, Paul drafted the kid who was always around to help out. The benefits of what turned out to be a long term part time job proved to be mutual. The modest cash was welcome, plus I got to take out a large chunk of pay in books. My shelves at home began to fill up, even though some of my choices back in the day baffle me now.
Gradually, the collection began to reflect my growing professional interests in journalism and related subjects. And it kept growing and following me around. Countless times I’ve boxed up books and hauled them off to a new destination. I can’t even imagine not being surrounded by them, though some near and dear to me sure can.
Some of those books have accompanied me to multiple new living places in Duluth Minn., Milwaukee, Wisc., Guam, Saipan and more recently to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Now, I’m facing yet another Guam move and it’s time to break out the cardboard boxes and consider sending off some of my old pals to local thrift stores.
More rational people of my past and present acquaintance, starting with my late mother, have suggested alternatives. Mom was an early advocate of simplifying one’s life and she practiced this by sourcing most of her reading to the local public library, accumulating a few nice possessions, but hardly a couple of thousand bulky, dust gathering volumes. A Guam friend sings the virtues of the Kindle reader and its relatives. Well, I’ve got one, actually two Kindles, which I occasionally charge up to see books I can’t get any other way. I am quite at home on computers, but somehow, paper and print still appeal to me a lot more than additional time peering at a screen.
Over the years, computers have hit a lot of business models hard, including that of the book business. Once upon a time, if you liked to buy books, but couldn’t handle the stiff price of trade hardbacks, you had limited alternatives: Wait for the paperback edition, find a used hardback or do without.
Along came something called Amazon and suddenly list prices for hardbacks or increasingly pricey paperbacks were knocked off 20 to 30 percent or more. The e-reader option began to offer both instant gratification by download and even lower prices. This was pretty disastrous for a lot of traditional retail bookstores, and experience tells me this must have knocked the bottom of the pricing in the used book business.
Of course in this area as in so many others, the Internet offered some pluses to those insistent on continuing to accumulate traditional books. Used booksellers seeking additional stock to this day regularly hit their local thrift stores as well as estate sales. Knowing their customers, they have a pretty good idea of what is the salable gold among the dross on those shelves. Now potential customers can now see much of this ‘thrift store’ stock online. For a buck or two plus shipping, you’ve got the book of your choice if it’s available. Amazon’s shipping is doubtless faster but there isn’t much competition over price. Another underpinning of the traditional book trade is the review book. As part of the marketing process, thousands of new books are shipped out in the hope that they’ll get a boost by a favorable review in print or online. Many of these books rapidly hit the used book market, undercutting even the steepest Amazon discount.
I long ago abandoned the appealing idea of collecting rare books, first editions and the like, focusing instead on things I would actually read and could afford. It’s ironic that the net result of all the changes is that I’ve been buying more, rather than less books.
And so, once again, it’s time to break out the boxes, cull the collection and move it. I can’t imagine life without this particular burden.