Friday, March 28, 2008

Books Can Be Clutter, Too

If you're an avid reader, as I am, you undoubtedly find it easy to accumulate mountains of books. I learned rather quickly that I couldn't possibly keep every book that I read, or even just every book that I read and actually liked (they're not all winners). You've also probably figured out that it doesn't take long to feel totally engulfed by your reading material. And, honestly, after the bookshelves have overflowed, how many stacks of books can be passed off as end-tables before there are more end-tables than ends?

Long ago I entertained a fantasy of having a home large enough to contain a fabulous library, but that fantasy has been replaced by an awareness of its utterly burdensome folly. Now I'm quite content with a reasonable number of bookcases that hold my favorite art books, some useful reference volumes, some sentimental favorites from my not terribly misspent youth, books that I had the privilege of having autographed by their authors, and books that I simply can't let go because they are so entertaining that I've sometimes read them more than once (P.G. Wodehouse, Donald Westlake and a few other writers are priceless gems).

But what does one do with those excess books that invade every nook and cranny? There used to be neighborhood independent bookstores that were perfect havens for old books. You could trade them in for new ones or sometimes sell them outright for a bit of cash. Sadly, those days are almost completely over. Independent bookstores have suffered almost to the point of extinction. Here in Los Angeles, one of the greats, Dutton's Books in Brentwood is closing the end of April. I wrote a blog post in February of last year about the fate of some of the other wonderful independents.

And yet, Powell's goes on. In fact, it seems to be thriving. Thirty-seven years after opening in Portland, Oregon, it remains "a bookstore with a unique recipe that, though viewed as unorthodox, worked: Used and new, hardcover and paperback, all on the same shelf, open 365 days a year and staffed by knowledgeable and dedicated book lovers." Powell's also made the smart move of putting its entire inventory online in 1996, allowing it to reach a vast reading audience far beyond its current six brick-and-mortar locations.

Best of all for those of us who love to read, Powell's will buy books that are in good condition and even pay the postage to have them mailed to Portland. The process is simple and, although they don't accept every title, it's pretty easy to amass a nice little store credit that you can use to buy more books!

Of course, there are many other possibilities for handling your used books, including donating them. Your neighborhood library has fund-raising book sales, your favorite charity may welcome them, or your local senior center may have a collection that is shared and replenished by the community.

Bookcrossing is an unusual alternative that might appeal to you. It allows you to register any book you have on their site, label it with a Bookcrossing sticker, then "set the book free to travel the world and find new readers. Leave it on a park bench, at a coffee shop, at a hotel on vacation. Share it with a friend or tuck it onto a bookshelf at the gym -- anywhere it might find a new reader! What happens next is up to fate, and we never know where our books might travel next. Track the book's journey around the world as it is passed on from person to person." It's also a fun way to make contact on the site with other literature lovers.

In the future, you might want to consider learning to love checking out books from your library. You get the joy of reading them without the job of keeping and disposing of them. If you're still a hardcore, gotta own it book lover, you might want to investigate's Kindle. This wireless reader holds two hundred books in the space of a single paperback. It's expensive (four hundred bucks), and the ten dollar downloads also could quickly add up to a hefty price, but what a great way to keep your favorite books at hand without crowding your living space. No, I don't have one . . . yet. However, I'm surely tempted by its positive reviews.

As for your old books, whatever you decide to do with them is fine as long as you remember that if they sit unread on your shelves or floor, they're not bringing other readers the joy you experienced while reading them. That would be an unfortunate loss. So pass them along and spread the word. Literally.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob


Jeri Dansky said...

I'm very lucky - there's a great independent bookstore just minutes from my house that deals in both new and used books, and I've been able to exchange almost all my ready-to-pass-on books for credit there.

In fact, my little city of Half Moon Bay has five independent bookstores (and no chain bookstores).

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Oooh, envy! I suppose I should be grateful to have a large and pleasant Barnes and Noble fairly nearby, as well as one very tiny independent bookstore cum European decorative goodies gift shop attached to a friendly restaurant. But, in my fantasy life, I'd have City Lights just down the street!

Michele said...

I absolutely love bookcrossing, and have been hooked since I joined in 2004. Curiously though, even though the point of the site is to get rid of your books, many people report accumulating even more once they join. It's not a reason not to join, I just find I need to be more disciplined about keeping my ever-rotating book inventory within the designated space (no matter how good a bargain I find!)

Cynthia Friedlob said...

I think that being self-disciplined about books is about as difficult as being self-disciplined about chocolate.

Thanks for your comment and helpful "warning" about the joys and dangers of Bookcrossing!

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Blog reader Sue sent me an e-mail with another suggestion:

"Another alternative for passing on books you no longer need is Paperbackswap. I joined a few months ago and I'm enjoying it immensely. I''ve mailed away about 20 books to other members and have received about 15 books back so far that were "new" to me! Recently I've started requesting books that will make great presents for my husband for Father's Day and his birthday."

Thanks, Sue!

Louise said...

Another way to sell used books is through Once you've set up a seller's account, just type in the ISBN to list a title.

We sold hundreds of books this way before we moved into our RV. Much harder was "letting go" emotionally of the books.

The critical moment for me was when I realized that a big part of why I hated to part with my books was that I viewed myself as An Intellectual. Having shelves and shelves of books was a big part of that persona. When I made peace with the fact that my brain would remain identical with or without books, but the RV would suffer terribly with all that extra weight, I was set free.

I now have fewer than 100 books and remain, inside, the same as ever!

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Amazon is, indeed, another very helpful suggestion, Louise.

I know you're not alone in your feeling that your books reaffirmed your identity as "An Intellectual." Congratulations on figuring out that you could part with the books and still be exactly who you are!

Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...


In the mid 1990s when I was in university living in a large shared house, my bookcases spanned two walls.

Then I got a small house on my own and I gave away and sold my books (family and friends were very appreciative).

Now I live in a 200sq ft apartment with my partner and I have half a shelf of books.

I never thought I'd get to this point, especially since I'm a writer and I love rereading books, but other priorities came up (like working less to give me more time to write and being able to afford less space).

Surprisingly, I don't miss them as much as I thought I would. But then again my purge took almost ten years.


PS It's great to be back visiting the site regularly after more than six months of irregular Internet connectivity.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Welcome back, Alex!

Very impressive downsizing of books that you accomplished. Often it does take a long time to let go of things that we love and books definitely have a magnetic hold on many of us.

The statement of your motivation makes an important point: less stuff requires less space, less space requires less money, and that results in more time to do the things that are important to you.

[Readers, Alex's personal journey is fascinating reading and will inspire you not to put off until "someday" all the things you truly want to do. Click on his name to read about what he's been doing.]

Thanks for commenting, Alex!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the kinds words Cynthia!