Intellectual credibility at wholesale pricing
January 12, 2021 8:04 AM   Subscribe

"... over the past two decades, Books by the Foot’s books-as-decor designs have become a fixture in the world of American politics, filling local appetite for books as status symbols..." Whether it's a movie set, hotel decor, an instant personal library, a "Zoom Room" or pretty much any other reason you might need to fill a whole lot of bookshelves, the Books By the Foot service of Maryland's Wonder Books has you covered. Order by color, order by subject, order by the overall impact you'd like to create (glossy professional anyone?) and the persona you want to imply. Interestingly, the overall volume of orders for this service has remained fairly stable during COVID, but the specific uses seems to have morphed.

The librarian in me wants to be angry that books are being treated as set dressing rather than things that should be carefully selected or discarded on their own individual merits. The inner pedant is directing my attention to the 35 linear feet of book shelving I installed in my own living room. The eco-warrior is pointing out that plenty of books are trash not worthy of anyone's time, so if they can find a use in this fashion then at least they're good for SOMETHING.

Also, just an interesting look at a service that most of us probably see the results of on a regular basis but may not have realized was A THING.
posted by The Librarian (91 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
So that's where they get the law reporters that invariably decorate the offices and libraries of lawyers and non-lawyers alike in TV shows and movies.
posted by jedicus at 8:15 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


The Strand had been offering this service forever as well. I remember walking by a little "leather bindings by the foot" section in the basement when I was a kid and thinking ohhhhhh now I get it.
posted by phooky at 8:22 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]


I have to say, if I had some catastrophic event that destroyed my personal library like a fire or a flood I might turn to such a service. It seems like they offer more curated picks as well us the "just fill the damn shelves" and as much as I like picking out books it takes long time to fill shelves that way. I think I'd rather start with a good-enough stock and weed/refill over the years.
posted by The Librarian at 8:25 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


We've bought some books by the foot, here in the Bay Area, and they are now glued to some shelves in our escape room. They're great - they let us specify a bunch of stuff like size and general look and even subject matter, so stuff fits our look, and our story.

At first I was also hesitant to use real books for this but ... they keep printing more books, so I guess if people didn't ruin some of them, we'd all drown under all of them? (I hope I don't go to book hell)
posted by aubilenon at 8:26 AM on January 12 [7 favorites]


Myles na gCopaleen was ahead of the game, as always:
Why should a wealthy person like this be put to the trouble of pretending to read at all? Why not a professional book-handler to go in and suitably maul his library for so-much per shelf? Such a person, if properly qualified, could make a fortune.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 8:35 AM on January 12 [11 favorites]


I would happily provide a service/accept the challenge where you answer a few questions about yourself, you provide me some likes and dislikes (the last three books you liked, the last three books you hated) and I will actually fill your shelves with attractive copies of books you will probably enjoy reading.

See also: Vinyl records
posted by thivaia at 8:38 AM on January 12 [8 favorites]


It seems wasteful to just put shit in there that you're never actually going to read (or reread or loan out to friends)
posted by thivaia at 8:39 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


John Waters said, "If you go home with somebody and they don't have books, don't fuck them." We may need additional guidance from Mr. Waters on how to handle people who bought their books in bulk to match a color palette.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:40 AM on January 12 [43 favorites]


Aubilenon, speaking as someone who has done her fair share of weeding this is no reason for Book Hell. Some books are truly priceless and irreplaceable but many aren't, and anything contemporary will exist in many other iterations and formats. In the end you're not preventing anyone from accessing the ideas/story/information.

Slightly off topic but if anyone is interested in how the decision to weed is actually made, this is a method I've used professionally. Whether weeded books then have to be smuggled out under cover of darkness is another matter.
posted by The Librarian at 8:41 AM on January 12 [8 favorites]


We may need additional guidance from Mr. Waters on how to handle people who bought their books in bulk to match a color palette.

This falls under the "Did you buy your art specifically to match the sofa?" Fine for some people. Dealbreaker for me.
posted by thivaia at 8:42 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]


I spent one summer working at a furniture store in a dying mall in Atlanta. All of the display bookshelves were filled with such a strange assortment of hardbacks that I assume they used this kind of service to fill them. Because the mall was basically dead, I probably spoke to 3 customers in the 2 months I worked there. The rest of my time was spent reading books off those bookshelves and it added some much needed excitement to my life.
posted by victoriab at 8:43 AM on January 12 [16 favorites]


I'm guessing this is far from new, based on the scene in The Great Gatsby where he clearly hasn't read anything in his library because the pages haven't been cut. People have always liked to look smarter than they are.
posted by pangolin party at 8:44 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]


Slightly off topic, but I remember how thrilled I was, on an episode of Mad Men which was showing Don Draper's study, to see a book that was published in 1985. (I think it was by W.E. B. Griffin.)
posted by dannyboybell at 8:59 AM on January 12 [6 favorites]


Hi, is this Wonder Book? I'd like to order 9 feet of The Power Broker.
posted by betweenthebars at 9:00 AM on January 12 [8 favorites]


Back in the good old days when you could go to people’s houses, I had a horrible habit of looking for their books and then judging them. Mr Waters is right. I have thousands of books lining my apartment and I never, ever selected one because of color or size. They are not decoration. They are heavy, dusty worlds to explore. And to rearrange when another joins the crowd.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:05 AM on January 12 [14 favorites]


To be honest, I'm pretty sure this is how a lot of aristocrats filled their libraries a couple hundred years ago. I once inherited a set of Shakespeare printed sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century - and most of the pages had yet to be cut open. This set had been bought, passed on (and probably passed on again) - and had yet to be even opened, let alone read.*

on preview - pangolin party makes the same point. This is not a new phenomenon.

My own video background is also usually a full bookshelf, but close inspection reveals that most of the books are tattered genre paperbacks, a few of my SO's rarely used reference books, and (shoved in and on top of the books) knickknacks, candy and bits and bobs. It's really not helping my image, unless I'm aiming for a slot on the next episode of Hoarders.

*And they left me to go to a new home also unread - the volumes were too awkward and the bindings too delicate for actually reading, let alone the heavy use of study. I gave them to someone who really liked the bindings looked. I do not know if they read them.
posted by jb at 9:06 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


"If you go home with somebody and they don't have books, don't fuck them."

I used to live by this, but then I gave all my books away and stopped hoarding them. Because I had a huge problem, like a 2 ton book mountain problem. Now I read them and then give them away.

The only books I keep these days tend to be nature field guides and reference books.
posted by loquacious at 9:08 AM on January 12 [15 favorites]


Aubilenon, speaking as someone who has done her fair share of weeding this is no reason for Book Hell. Some books are truly priceless and irreplaceable but many aren't, and anything contemporary will exist in many other iterations and formats. In the end you're not preventing anyone from accessing the ideas/story/information.

Also, some of the most attractive books include out-of-date textbooks and reference books. No one really wants the Encyclopedia Britannica from 1965, as amusing as it was (in the mid-80s) to read about how one day, people might go to the moon. I have an old handbook for writers which had some interesting essays about style or technique which are still relevant, but the other 2/3 of this thick volume are addresses of (possibly defunct, most certainly moved) magazines and literary agents to send you manuscripts to.

Even really old books might be of little value, depending on how common they are. My SO inherited a few books published in the 17th century, and he thought that maybe he should donate them to a rare books library. But when he asked about the specific titles, he found out that they were 17th century best-sellers, thousands of copies had been printed and there were hundreds in rare books libraries around the world in many different versions (as well as copies online). So really, like an antique chair, they are just something to delight us and not of any unique value for research.
posted by jb at 9:16 AM on January 12 [5 favorites]


I would happily provide a service/...

Already exists here and I imagine elsewhere as well. Which is not to say that you could not do the same.
posted by BWA at 9:19 AM on January 12


I once found a rather rare family history book, in very good condition, in a set of 5 color-matched decorative books on Etsy for around $50. The book is probably of interest to maybe 100 people in the US and I always wonder how it got from some genealogist or library to a reseller to me.
posted by muddgirl at 9:25 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


The rest of my time was spent reading books off those [furniture store] bookshelves and it added some much needed excitement to my life.

I might be recalling this badly, but aren't the books decorating all the shelves in all the IKEA showrooms Swedish books? Are they flying them over to the states on purpose?
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:25 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


I might be recalling this badly, but aren't the books decorating all the shelves in all the IKEA showrooms Swedish books? Are they flying them over to the states on purpose?

They're all Swedish copies of The Six Wives of Henry VIII and a few other titles.
posted by Hypatia at 9:29 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]


That's...oddly specific.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:29 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


This will only go away if there is another way to display your intellectual depth. Like one of those electronic picture frames, but for ebooks. Or maybe a way to project your current reading list on a wall behind you. Or your favorites.
posted by emjaybee at 9:35 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


Like one of those electronic picture frames, but for ebooks.

That reminds me of this Onion article.
posted by Earthtopus at 9:40 AM on January 12 [6 favorites]


I used to live by this, but then I gave all my books away and stopped hoarding them. Because I had a huge problem, like a 2 ton book mountain problem. Now I read them and then give them away.

I did the same. Years ago I was moving apartments and I realized that I had more boxes of books than everything else I owned combined and the vast majority of them were novels that I would probably never read again. Now I basically just keep reference books and give the rest away after I read them.

I also moved to mostly reading library books, instead of buying a book I want immediately I put it on hold and get it when I get it. I thought that it would bother me not to read especially new releases when they are new but actually not so much.

The end result is for someone who is basically always reading a book and recommending books to people I have hardly any and definitely couldn't make a professional backdrop with what I've got.
posted by selenized at 9:41 AM on January 12 [7 favorites]


jb: Utility is not the only arbiter of value. One of the most prized among the 10,000 or so book in this house is a work entitled Business Welsh. I think the chances that I will ever need to look up the Welsh term for “amortization” or “accounts receivable” approach zero, but its very uselessness is what makes it so appealing.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:42 AM on January 12 [23 favorites]


In the past two or three years, I've spent time in both Wonder Book locations in Frederick, MD and another in Hagerstown, MD. They are just amazing bookstores - crammed floor to ceiling with used books in every conceivable category. I could've spent even more time there than the hours I did. In fact, over 20 years ago, having recently moved to Baltimore and become immersed in study for the bar exam, I took an entire day off in the middle of the summer to drive to Frederick and spend about 4 hours browsing in the main Wonder Book location there. It's that enjoyable a place for me - I was spending 18 hours a day with my nose in a book, but I took a study break in a ginormous bookstore, by choice, and still found it fun and restorative.

I guess what I'm saying is, I like Wonder Book and if this is how they have to pay the bills, that is fine with me.
posted by cheapskatebay at 9:46 AM on January 12 [11 favorites]


I've been culling my hoard. Probably moving next year. It is difficult. For every book, there is a reason why I once wanted it. And then there are the unread ones, like philosophy books I bought 20 or 25 years ago and have not read. Self, I told myself, you have not read this book in the 20 years that you have owned it. You are not going to read it. Why not let it go? But it feels like dying, like giving up on a self or a life that once seemed attainable to me.

One pitfall I had to overcome was thinking that I should try to sell some of them. There are no more local bookstores buying used books, and listing them on Amazon or whatever seems like it will just lead to me not getting rid of them after all.
posted by thelonius at 9:50 AM on January 12 [15 favorites]


Are they leather bound pounds? I need leather bound pounds to go with my wallet.
posted by scolbath at 9:51 AM on January 12 [7 favorites]


Cheapskatebay, there's one not too far from me in Gaithersburg, and I keep meaning to make the trip up there. I'm hoping they have a decent manga selection, because when I lived in Virginia I got spoiled by the giant, well-lit warehouse that was McKay's, but I'm not willing to drive across the Potomac (especially during COVID) for a used book quest. Especially because it seems (quite reasonably) that most of the used bookstores around here are doing a quarantine process with their acquisitions, so I can't just come in with a crate of my castoffs, have it assessed while I browse, and then use the credit to offset some of the cost of whatever NEW pile of books I have picked up while waiting.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 10:08 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


If I had tons of money and nothing to do, I would totally open up a Books/Vinyl/VHS/Cassette/CD/DVD/Blu-ray/8 Track etc. by the foot warehouse. It makes the hoarder in me quiver with excitement.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:27 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Back in the good old days when you could go to people’s houses, I had a horrible totally appropriate habit of looking for their books and then judging them.

ftfy
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:29 AM on January 12 [10 favorites]


Follow-up to the Waters comment... My gut says that he'd be okay with fetishizing books as art objects and tickled by personal libraries put together for color considerations... but appalled by people farming this out as a bulk purchase as opposed to going thrifting and doing it on their own.

But 100% if you couldn't point to one shelf of things you actually read, no sex for you.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:33 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]


I'm Ok with this? Dead trees on shelves is one way to sequester carbon (for a while, anyway), and if they serve a purpose so they stay there so much the better. Even if that purpose is *shudder* zoom wallpaper. At least it's better than landfill, where a lot of unloved books go.

I can't talk. We had to get rid of most of our books due to having twins and needing the space, and what remains of our shelves are now filled with Julia Donaldson, "Dora the Explorer" and many, many books about princesses etc. I still have the signed Terry Pratchetts and a handful of reference books stashed away in the loft, and my wife similarly with a tiny subset of her favourites (mostly in French) but pretty much everything else ended up with friends or donated to the local 2nd hand bookshop. (and probably recycled, sigh)

I'll probably get lynched for this, but I'd already switched to an ebook reader some time beforehand - I think I'm on my 3rd one now, and the screen is sooo good - and I, well, umm, prefer it. They're just so much lighter than a hardback or even a paperback, and if I try and read a real book now I end up getting thumb cramp from keeping the pages open. And I can fit hundreds of books on there! And take it with me, in the future paradise when I can leave the house, and go like, somewhere else.

I do have to swap out my online meeting background with a fake one, not just because it's kind of a soft toy/discarded dress-up clothes hellscape behind me, but there's also a definite possibility of a 5 year old doing her giggling naked bottom dance behind me, which I'd rather not inflict on my colleagues unexpectedly.
posted by Absolutely No You-Know-What at 10:34 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


I've mostly gotten rid of my books—like the poster up-thread, I read constantly but nearly all library books. The one area that's different is that I've been working on owning more poetry. I could totally see myself asking these folks to put together six feet of 19th and 20th Century poetry in English but not limited to the US and the UK, with a bias toward women and queer people. It would be a lot of fun to open that box when it arrived.
posted by Orlop at 10:35 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


Here's a fun game:

At your friend's house, have them sit with their back to their book shelf. Select a book and begin reading a passage. Sometimes I read from the foreword, the first paragraph, or the last paragraph, or maybe I just jump into the middle. See how long it takes them to guess what book it is. Now here's the hard part: make your selection neither too easy nor too hard, so that their correct guess is possible, but maybe they don't get it right away. This is usually possible even if they haven't actually read the book, because they will still have an idea what's there. If they are a couple, they can both guess, and maybe race for points.
posted by hypnogogue at 10:37 AM on January 12 [7 favorites]


It's nothing new. I've seen in the ornate library of a historic home what looked like sets of bound books, encyclopedias or collections of journals, that on closer inspection turned out to be paper boxes with fake spines. It might have been the library of the Charles Gates Dawes House, or it might have been the Driehaus Museum, but the boxes looked to be of the period.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:49 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


I've been culling my hoard.

Full disclosure: three books have been delivered today.....
posted by thelonius at 11:06 AM on January 12 [5 favorites]


Years back I was at a department dinner in The Banker’s Club at the top of the Bank of America building (part owned now by Dumpf) here in San Francisco. In the lobby were shelves of old leather bound books. Being me I went over to check them out. I was shocked and appalled to see that it was just the spines of old leather bound books glued to a board. Bibliocide pure and simple.
posted by njohnson23 at 11:06 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]


I'm another 'judge people by their bookcases' person, with a side order of 'if something they have looks interesting, ask to borrow it.' I also have a small book collecting problem (since posting that Ask I have bought at least another 20-30 books). And I always assume that if someone has a book, it means they've read that book, or are about to.

So I used to be horrified by this sort of service, and especially people who chose books by color. Now that this is a Thing, though, I kind of like it. If shame over people knowing you have no books makes you buy books, maybe more people will read more. One of the things that stuck with me about Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story was his vision of a future where physical books were seen as smelly and gross - the way he described one character's visceral disgusted reaction to the physical bookiness that a lot of us love was something that I could totally see happening someday.
posted by my left sock at 11:10 AM on January 12


From "The Great Gatsby" --Gatsby's library:
"Absolutely real — have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real. Pages and — Here! Lemme show you.”

Taking our scepticism for granted, he rushed to the bookcases and returned with Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures.”

“See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too — didn’t cut the pages.
posted by librosegretti at 11:23 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


Can we please not turn this into yet another thread of humble bragging about how many books you have and trying to shame people who, for whatever reason either choose or simply can’t fill their homes with books? It’s really gross.
posted by Megami at 11:25 AM on January 12 [18 favorites]


I love how much other people love physical books, but it makes me sad that the fact that I move a lot and therefore prefer library books + ebooks will make them think that I am less intellectual/well-rounded/whatever than they are. I own a bunch of cookbooks, a few other reference books, maybe five random non-reference books that will eventually go back to one of the little free libraries around here, and that's pretty much it.

Someday, if I'm settled in the same place for a long time, I may curate and purchase a whole bookshelf of books at once - and yeah, it will be for image, at least a little bit. I am well aware that, as seen above, many people - people that I generally like - do judge people on their bookshelves. And I kind of want to impress those people. Sorry not sorry.
posted by mosst at 11:26 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


On of the issues with ebooks is the indexing is cumbersome, swiping through to shift the order of books to a bit more easily findable is slow and slightly annoying. Wouldn't a virtual bookshelf be cool that listed the current books. Visually scannable -- wouldn't be cool to tap a book on the bookshelf and have it open in the e-reader?
posted by sammyo at 11:27 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


I remember being in a cafe called the Library when I was doing my PhD. Now I dunno if they used a service like this or just grabbed up whatever books were left over when one of the libraries had a book sale. But I remember being with some friends and pulling a book off the shelf that turned out to be a weighty tome, on the entire history and technique of iron/steel metallurgy. And it was fascinating.

And now I wish I remembered what the name of that book was! Because I'd love to have a copy. It's the sort of book that feels like it deserves the mystique and awe and magic that makes some quail from the thought of destroying books. Just so much knowledge about something fundamental to making civilization work in a single object. I like books like that.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:39 AM on January 12 [5 favorites]


Zalzidrax we had something similar when a few years back we were in a pub in Wales that had random books as decoration. My kid started reading one - something published in the 1930s about moral character- and he enjoyed it so much he asked if we could keep it. We asked if we could buy it and the pub thought the whole thing was so funny they gave us the book for free. We still have that book.
posted by Megami at 11:43 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]


Books are gonna get wasted. When I worked for an academic journal, I accumulated a big box of unsolicited review copies we couldn’t use, every month. I sent a list to the university libraries, but they only were able to take a few. Faculty might take one or two more in a good month. The rest got pulped.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:52 AM on January 12


....trying to shame people who, for whatever reason either choose or simply can’t fill their homes with books?

I really don't think that anyone is trying to do that; if you were talking about comments like mine, I certainly wasn't.
posted by thelonius at 11:53 AM on January 12 [10 favorites]


Not having a go at anyone in particular thelonius, but there is a history of almost any post here on MeFi about books ends up being some kind of pissing contest over who is the best for having lots of books, and making judgements - overt or not - that people who don't choose to fill their living space with books are inferior. My response will always be if you think stating that you can't imagine living in a house filled with books you are not showing moral superiority, you are showing a lack of empathy and/or a lack of imagination.
/gets off soapbox
posted by Megami at 12:07 PM on January 12 [5 favorites]


During a phase of living in small spaces and moving a lot, I decided to limit myself to 25 books and 25 CDs to make life easier. New one in = old one out. I lived happily this way for about 10 years. When I met my husband and he saw my meager collection of books and music, he got a sad look on his face. Turns out, he thought I’d suffered some natural disaster that destroyed all my entertainment but didn’t want to ask because he assumed it would be too painful to discuss. Imagine his surprise on like our 5th date when I told him my small collection was by design. He was completely baffled...but luckily liked me too much for it to be a deal killer. He still has no idea how I live this way...even with all of the technology available, he still wants a hard copy of things.
posted by victoriab at 12:19 PM on January 12 [3 favorites]


I find it weird that people have so many shelves that they want to fill with useless things (books by the foot, not your books) and not with things that actually need to be put somewhere. Like if I had that much shelf space then I'd put stuff like my tools and camping gear there instead of in the basement. Or photos in frames.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:20 PM on January 12 [4 favorites]


Book-based decorating trends that grind my gears, in increasing order of obnoxiousness:

3. Organizing by color. I think that books by the same author should be grouped together, but I accept that in addition to aesthetic considerations, for some folks it's more intuitive to organize this way if you have a visual memory.

2. Books by the foot. Only buy books you want to read! I did think it was interesting that the article in the post mentioned that some folks were placing orders for "10 feet of mysteries, or 3 feet of art books", so probably not just for show in some cases.

1. Spine-in shelving. If you're not trying to avoid copyright issues from your bookshelves being filmed, WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS.
posted by bassooner at 12:27 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


Donald Trump has an embarrassing shit library

Which is funny because his whole life is an attempt to outwardly pretend to be something more and better than what he actually is. He pretends to be rich. He pretends to be a successful businessman. He pretends he is respected by other rich, successful people. Hell, he even pretends to have written some of the few books on his shelf. But, no, he will not pretend to be a person who reads books. That is a bridge too far.
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 12:45 PM on January 12 [4 favorites]


For the last decade or so I've been doing something like the opposite: giving away books I've read and don't plan on re-reading anytime soon. While I'm fond of these books, mostly acquired from library sales and little used bookstores one at a time over the years, at some point I decided I don't need to hoard them. Local Buy Nothing groups, "little free libraries", or just free piles for visiting friends are great ways to find a good home for a good book that you don't need (which is usually any book that you haven't read in the last decade).

IMHO giving away these books gives me more pleasure than having them serve as decor in my home could.
posted by splitpeasoup at 1:10 PM on January 12 [4 favorites]


Giving books away is obviously the right move but there is an exhilarating sense of taboo breaking to chuck a couple dozen worthless old books directly into the dumpster. (Many donated books end up there anyway.)
posted by paper chromatographologist at 1:25 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


Aw, Orlop, Powells' or Open Books would have so much more fun putting together three feet of poetry. Probably not as cheap, but also less likely to get three feet of glurge.

Like Zalzidrax, I have found delightful things in decor-books: a 1960s memoir from a diplomat's wife who was in Greece during WWII, for instance. Presented sort of like The Egg and I, amusing complaint, but there were details of international politics that I didn't know and she wrote as though most USians hadn't been paying attention at the time. Plus all the fascinating material stuff about the switch from a local to a modern economy, woven into the complexities of keeping a household fed without offending either the neighbors or her husband's job.
posted by clew at 1:50 PM on January 12 [4 favorites]


New one in = old one out.

I do this with my books too. I get two shelves (but they're deep so I can store two rows of books on each shelf) and the books need to fit there. Although I am also thinking of building some benches with shelves underneath to give myself a bit more room to work with.

What's worrying is that my comic book shelf is getting full. Everything on it is stuff I had already read but wanted to get in a nice big book format so it's already curated. My only options are to push some of them onto my daughter's bookshelf or maybe make that shelf go higher.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:59 PM on January 12


A couple of years ago an older man who lives in the big fancy doorman building next door to us came out with an entire shopping cart's worth of books, that he proceeded to pile up in a wall in front of our stoop. Most of them were the sort of books we regularly find spilling out of the trash in our old liberal NYC neighborhood - worn paperbacks from the 60's and 70's, lots of Leon Uris, lots of out of date sociology - the sort of books that even the company in the article wouldn't stock. He stacked them on top of each other, so even if someone wanted one, it would take a huge amount of effort to take it without causing its pile to fall onto the sidewalk. We told him he couldn't put them in front of our apartment building - if it made a mess we would be fined, and if his building wouldn't allow him to build his free book wall in front of it, it shouldn't be our problem. He bristled and said, "I'm providing a public service!" and kept on stacking up books.

We called the super for his building and they hauled it all away before the end of the hour. No idea what they did with them - I secretly hope that they piled up the wall again in front of his apartment door, but I'm guessing they were dumpstered. I felt a little bad. But not a lot.
posted by Mchelly at 2:03 PM on January 12


I am 78 years old, and live in the house my wife grew up in.

We have a roomful of books that I read, kept, and will likely never revisit: math texts from when I mathed (stopped 50 years ago--do you want some original Bourbaki?) drawing books (mostly Dover) from when I drew (not much in the last 25 years--tremor) and computer from when I computed (until about 10 years ago, mostly computer graphics stuff, but I can do crude database and vintage internet too--Xlib V.1 anyone?).

Also, assorted (insect physiology, HELP paperbacks, 19th century medical books, ???)

But I always preferred to read library books because they could be returned and disappear. I avoided bound books for about the last 25 years, except I got the bound SQL Server for the antique version I was last using because the online docs were usually for the wrong version.

My father bought a 1903 Encyclopedia Britanica (for $.05 a volume, 30 vols, he told me) sometime in the 1930s. I read it often a a kid--I remember the article about flight--it was heavy on a guy named Langely? who was then considered the most likely to solve how to fly.
Also, that many articles were unchanged in the 1950s editions.

The most stunning books-by-the-foot I have seen is in the Huntington Library near Los Angeles. There are endless mind-bendingly obscure and unnecessary books there--I spent an easy half hour with bound copies of some mid-19th-century imitation of Punch that, for page after page, made absolutely no sense at all! It was wonderful.
posted by hexatron at 2:57 PM on January 12 [8 favorites]


There is one hill I won't die on, and that is tone policing someone for how they talk about books.

Don't like owning a lot of books and prefer to get yours from the library, or keep your reading on a device? Great. Can't afford books but wish you could? Not ideal, but I know that feeling. Love books and own way more than you will ever read? Why not. Judge others by the books on their shelves? Guilty, and not my best quality.

If there is an absurd abundance in our times that seems relatively okay to me, it's the abundance of books. I love walking from one room to another and grabbing a book and reading 4, 5 sentences, a few pages, then put it aside for days or weeks or ever. This is one thing in my life that makes me know I'm so lucky, that things can be much worse. Peace.
posted by elkevelvet at 3:00 PM on January 12 [7 favorites]


What about the absurd abundance of funny pictures of dogs, cats and other very good animals?
posted by howfar at 3:07 PM on January 12


sorry to say, I'm a sucker for that
posted by elkevelvet at 3:12 PM on January 12


John Waters said, "If you go home with somebody and they don't have books, don't fuck them." We may need additional guidance from Mr. Waters [...]

BuzzFeed's Hayley Campbell: John, should you really decline to fuck the bookless?

John Waters: That’s not really true if they’re cute enough. I like the idea emotionally but if they’re cute enough — who’s looking at their books?

-We Asked John Waters For Dating Tips And He Said It's OK To Sleep With Assholes (BuzzFeed, Sept. 21, 2015)
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:52 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry if anyone found this post to be a snide judgement on people who don't have many books in their homes. That wasn't my intent. I've also had to limit my collection quite significantly for most of my adult life, the wall-mounted bookshelves in the current living room were as much about celebrating finally buying our first house as they were about the book-collection potential. None of the many landlords I've had in my life would have permitted these, even if we'd been in the same place long enough to merit them.

On the topic at hand, I find the whole idea kind of fascinating and I wish I could talk honestly to some of the people who use these services. Obvious backdrops like movie sets excluded, what are the specific motivations? Personal users might want to look intellectual, some might be looking for a kind of lucky-dip approach to getting lots of books all at once but with a lower risk of duds. And what about the person who has lots of books already, but wants less polarizing books for public display? What's the the inner thought process there?

I also wonder about success rates. How carefully do the clients review the books they receive, and how often do clients remove books from these collections?
posted by The Librarian at 4:40 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


They're all Swedish copies of The Six Wives of Henry VIII and a few other titles.

A few decades ago at IKEA in Australia, the prop books had Swedish titles on their bindings (and of the same book in multiples), but inside were all blank. Perhaps this gets around paying royalties for actual text.

Sooner or later, someone is going to use neural networks to produce realistically textured, royalty-free nonsense prose for prop books. There are already similarly fake books self-published on Amazon (such as “Barack Obama Book”, the ex-President's biography as regurgitated by a neural network, with a cover looking mistakable for his autobiography).
posted by acb at 4:40 PM on January 12


Book-based decorating trends that grind my gears, in increasing order of obnoxiousness:

A few years ago I get really excited* about reorganizing by geography and then immediately ran into all kinds of problems with colonialism almost immediately m that basically soured the whole exercise.

Historically is also fun (both by publication date and by period book is written about, though the latter gets weird with vague dystopian futures).

*I love reorganzing books and records. It's my total happy place.
posted by thivaia at 4:46 PM on January 12 [4 favorites]


I used to have several of those boxes that look like they're a book, but I only have one now.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:52 PM on January 12


Utility is not the only arbiter of value. One of the most prized among the 10,000 or so book in this house is a work entitled Business Welsh. I think the chances that I will ever need to look up the Welsh term for “amortization” or “accounts receivable” approach zero, but its very uselessness is what makes it so appealing.

Nothing personal, but I feel like if a person has reached the point where the more useless and esoteric a book is the more they want it for their collection then they officially have a problem.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 4:57 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


In the 1980s and 1990s I worked at a Michigan used book shop. Sometimes a customer would come in and ask for books for decoration. The store owner would mock them and usually kick 'em out.
posted by doctornemo at 7:55 PM on January 12


ME: There's no problem here! I just have, um, a lot of books.

ALSO ME: I apparently shelved Patrick Bronte's correspondence in the wrong spot.* I cannot identify which shelf it is, and I need to reference Patrick's correspondence.

CONTINUING TO BE ME: *swears, buys another copy of Patrick Bronte's correspondence*

*--still haven't found it after several weeks of searching
posted by thomas j wise at 7:57 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


As a librarian and a book person who has worked in all sorts of areas, wow, what a thread.
I used to totally love the idea of living in a space with bookish shelves full of books. And partering with a literature academic this became possible, and I crafted many shelves which lined our space and housed our books. But then we needed to move, and move again.

Right now I'm more or less joking that being a librarian has released me from wanting to live in one.

And I'm now trying to figure out how to get rid of our collection
posted by indexy at 8:07 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


One thing I'm finding interesting in parenthood is how hard it is to separate my kids from books. We frequently visit a bunch of little free libraries, and I think you should put one in if you're taking one out, at least some of the time. The kids would really rather never give up a book, even if that means getting a fun new book. Because they did like that book and who knows about the new book. They are young enough (6&8) that they do a lot of re-reading still.
posted by lab.beetle at 8:35 PM on January 12


No one really wants the Encyclopedia Britannica from 1965...

That's probably true. The 1975 edition is better for a lot of reasons.
posted by the Real Dan at 9:46 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


You need to think of books as not, um, books.

People collect souvenirs and snow globes and knickknacks and fill their shelves with them. Snow globes are not especially useful things. They aren't required to be.

To some - to me - a book is often a reminder of where I was and what I was doing when I read it, a souvenir itself. I occasionally read a book I've read before, but not all that often; I have books I won't read again, and I'm fine with that; it makes me happy to have them around. (I will happily lend them out, if that matters.)

I don't have any snow globes and I don't much mind if you don't have any books.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 12:10 AM on January 13 [3 favorites]


Does your hard drive directory look sparse and uninteresting?

Be sure to patronize their new spinoff service: Data By The Terabyte
posted by fairmettle at 1:24 AM on January 13 [8 favorites]


I used to work for... a chain of stores that is known for selling mostly-used books at, say, around 50% of their original price, if you know which one I mean.

We had a books by the foot service, but I don’t think it necessarily ran out of the stores themselves: we were pretty much shoestring retail operations without a ton of stock room for that kind of thing. So I suspect those sales ran out of the warehouse or out of the chain’s central office.

They were supposedly actually purchased a lot by home stagers, so that empty model homes or apartments or places for sale would still look like places you could imagine yourself living in.
posted by verbminx at 4:30 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]


When I read stories like this or about Instagram shelfies and whatnot I'm honestly surprised that enough people still want books in the background as decoration or a status symbol or whatever to make businesses like these a viable profit model (disclaimer: my house is full of books).
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:50 AM on January 13


They were supposedly actually purchased a lot by home stagers, so that empty model homes or apartments or places for sale would still look like places you could imagine yourself living in.

God, I wish all home stagers would use a service like this. One of the worst set of customers, or "customers," for me as a bookseller were the ones who would come in repeatedly and buy a bunch of hundred-dollar coffee table books, then return them with some absurd story when I knew it was for a staging. Or a photo shoot, although usually they returned those much quicker and didn't try so hard to pretend they were doing anything else. Books returned this way are rarely in sellable condition but for some reason these people are never willing to buy an opened copy-- even if they opened it themselves.
posted by BibiRose at 9:31 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]


"If you go home with somebody and they don't have books, don't fuck them."

My dented kindle and a dozen dog eared and crusty mass market paperbacks bring all the boys to the yard.
posted by phunniemee at 10:18 AM on January 13 [5 favorites]


I will say that I saw an interview with Mandy Moore recently and the bookshelf behind her had a bunch of Thomas Pynchon on it and my opinion of her instantly became favourable (I didn't have an opinion before). On the other side a friend sent a picture of his media shelf in a group chat and there was a bunch of Dan Brown on it and I wish I could unsee that.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:15 PM on January 13 [2 favorites]


The New York Times does a roundup of books they've sleuthed on peoples' zoom screens, so there's definitely a reason some people feel they need to stage these.
posted by Mchelly at 2:34 PM on January 13 [2 favorites]


I used to live down the block from the original "Wonder Books" back in the early 90s and this amuses me no end because the books were so haphazardly arranged; you might find Gore Vidal in the Romance section (not that he would have minded) or spy thrillers in History.
posted by acrasis at 5:27 PM on January 13


Okay, so you judge a person by the books they own. But do you ever judge a book by the person who owns it?
posted by clawsoon at 8:09 PM on January 13


Well, that is the reason I've never read Atlas Shrugged....
posted by Westringia F. at 8:19 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]


Turner Diaries
Ready Player One
A Year in Provence
posted by thatwhichfalls at 8:37 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


You could always build some furniture out of old books.

I have allergies to the dust and mold that can build up on old books, especially in our dampish climate. When my office was located in one of the university libraries, there were sections I had to avoid walking through if I didn't want to spend the rest of the day sneezing and nursing a headache. Between that and my vision issues, I've had to limit the number of physical books I keep at home. Etexts, audiobooks, and borrowed books that don't hang around when I'm finished have been a godsend. I even scanned and gave away a lot of my older sheet music.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:28 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Are they leather bound pounds? I need leather bound pounds to go with my wallet.
posted by scolbath at 9:51 AM on January 12

"Are they real leather?"
"They're real Dickens!"

I was scrolling through comments to see if I was going to have to make the Black Books reference myself...
posted by BlueNorther at 4:48 AM on January 14


I mentioned this concept this afternoon on a first interview over zoom. The rest of the interview went great.
posted by bendy at 3:45 PM on January 15


Utility is not the only arbiter of value. One of the most prized among the 10,000 or so book in this house is a work entitled Business Welsh. I think the chances that I will ever need to look up the Welsh term for “amortization” or “accounts receivable” approach zero, but its very uselessness is what makes it so appealing.

Nothing personal, but I feel like if a person has reached the point where the more useless and esoteric a book is the more they want it for their collection then they officially have a problem.


Well, I cite one and only book which I value for its abstruseness*. I bought it for a dollar maybe fifteen years ago in a used bookstore in Montreal just off the Concordia campus. I can think of few times I have spent a dollar on something that has given me so much enjoyment.

*Mostly I aim for an even more ruthless ongoing culling, with one book in meaning two books out. I make exceptions for gifts, but if I buy three books, I begin worriedly considering the half dozen I am going to release into the wild.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:40 AM on January 17


So on Friday we had one of my (adult) stepson’s friends over (we’re in a “pod” and are literally the only people he interacts with besides my stepson), and he was looking for some books to borrow. And I had such a good time recommending things and handing them to him to pick and pushing some favorites. He took about three books. I felt great.

It’s two days later and I’m already in “I hope he brings them back” territory.

I’ve never been a person who writes down who I lend books to, and which books. But every now and then I go looking for something I want to read again, and I can’t find it, and I get that feeling that I bet someone borrowed it but I have no idea who — it makes it almost impossible for me to buy it again because surely they know they have it and are going to bring it back someday...

I can also probably list all the books I’ve borrowed and still haven’t returned, so.
posted by Mchelly at 6:25 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


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