The strangest thing happened to us the other day. Well, in retrospect, it wasn’t strange at all, and you undoubtedly won’t find it strange. But it shocked the heck out of us.
We all went shopping for bookshelves.
We have a lot of books in the house, lots and lots of books, an impossible-to-keep-up-with tidal wave of books. It’s a wonderful thing. I love books. And yet … I’m not sure exactly why our book collection keeps growing. I must admit to the crime of doing most of my reading now on a Kindle or an iPad; this is just the way my life has gone. I travel too much to carry around books. I need too many books too quickly to keep going back and back and back to my little library.
So, if I’m reading mostly on a Kindle, why do we seem to add 100 books a month?
Actually, there’s a pretty simple answer to that — well, two answers. One, I know a lot of writers, and they usually send me their books. It’s a very, very nice thing. And, even though they send me their book, I also buy a copy of those books because that’s what friends do — if you are friends with a writer, please, please, please buy her or his book. It’s the nicest thing you can do for your friend.
Anyway, that’s double the books. Plus people sometimes send books THEIR friends have written, also a very nice thing, and relatives and friends give me a lot of books they think I will like, and I get a lot of Barnes & Noble gift cards, and it’s all good, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love books. But that’s reason one why I get so many.
Reason two — this makes me so happy — is that our oldest daughter Elizabeth is every bit as much in love with printed books as I am. Maybe more. She treats her books like they are beloved pets. Ever since she read “The Great Gatsby,” she has made sure that her copy is untouched by any book of lesser quality (all books, basically). She likes putting her books in various orders only she understands. She likes getting different versions of books that she particularly loves — I think she now has Harry Potter books in seven different languages. She believes that books are such wonderful things, e-reading is a sin.
She likes putting her books in various orders only she understands. She likes getting different versions of books that she particularly loves — I think she now has Harry Potter books in seven different languages. She believes that books are such wonderful things, e-reading should be a sin. Elizabeth is an old soul.
So between those two things, we are constantly running out of bookshelf space even though we have poorly constructed IKEA bookshelves all over the house. We wanted REAL bookshelves this time — and by “REAL” I mean “Bookshelves that are not leaning … or bookshelves where the back was nailed on properly … or bookshelves were neither side was put on backward by mistake.”.
The first furniture store — the biggest furniture store in our area — had a small section in the back with two different kinds of bookshelves. That seemed a pretty flimsy selection. They also had this one gorgeous book-shelving unit with a rolling ladder, you know, the kind that Belle used in “Beauty and the Beast.” We all gawked at that for a while.
“Are these all the bookshelves you have?” we asked the saleswoman. She clearly was not ready for that question.
“Um,” she said, “yeah.” There was something in the tone of her voice that we should have picked up on … but didn’t.
So we went to a second furniture store and asked the salesperson there to take us to the bookshelves department. She too gave us that funny look. “Well,” she said as she pointed at this weird-looking bookshelf in the front, “we have that one.”
The third furniture store did not have any bookshelves at all.
We still didn’t quite get it. The fourth store, there was a pushy salesman who showed us the one kind of bookshelf they sold. It wasn’t much to look at, and it was outrageously expensive — one bookshelf was more than the whole Beauty and the Beast set back in the first store — and then he said, “Wait, I do have one other one to show you.”
And he took us back to this thing made of steel rods and glass. It was completely open, no back, no sides, just glass shelves — the sort of thing your grandma would put decorative plates on.
“That’s not a bookshelf,” I said.
“Well,” he replied with an edge in his voice, “I’m trying to be creative.”
The fifth store had no bookshelves at all.
And the sixth had one set — the same weird looking bookshelf we had seen about two hours before.
I think that’s when it finally hit us: Nobody is selling bookshelves because NOBODY IS BUYING BOOKSHELVES. Well, of course they aren’t. That’s so obvious, it was stupefying that it took us so long to figure it out. There are only a few dreamers left who love wandering through bookstores, asking for recommendations, impulse buying some book we never expected like a book about the Transcontinental Railroad or one that uses Bazooka Joe comics to explain philosophy or a modern biography on Harry Houdini just because it looks interesting.
People still read thankfully, but not print and paper books, not so much, not anymore. We were basically going into stores and asking them to show us the section that sells buggy whips.
The point is not that books should come back. That’s nostalgia. That’s misplaced nostalgia. As mentioned, e-reading has too many advantages to ignore. No, the point is that we were fully aware of the decline in print, the closing of so many bookstores, the rise of the e-reader — we’ve lived all of that — and yet we went out looking for bookshelves as if it was many years ago and every store had them.
Why? I think it’s because time passes you by in weird ways. We are aware and unaware. I remember the first day that I realized that phone booths were no longer a thing — and it was weird. I knew about the rise of cell phones. I knew that with a cell phone, a phone booth was pointless. And yet I was surprised one day when phone booths were gone.
I remember the first day I realized that people on vacations no longer seemed to carry those big cameras around their necks — it was at Harry Potter World. Again, I was not unaware, I certainly knew that cell phone cameras had changed the landscape and that those big cameras (even if they took better photos) were more and more obsolete. And yet, I was surprised to look around and not see any of those cameras that used to be ubiquitous at amusement parks.
I am fully aware that there’s not much need now for encyclopedia sets … or giant dictionaries … or portable CD players … or those “little black books,” that people used to carry around when they needed someone’s phone number. And yet, all those things and so many others just sort of disappeared without me really noticing. The world changes in big ways but it changes in subtle ways too. Fewer and fewer homes and offices will have bookshelves as the years go on. It’s obvious. And yet, I never really saw it.
By the way: We went back to the first store and bought the “Beauty and the Beast” bookshelf. I’m pretty sure we surprised the woman at the store; I’m not sure she had sold a bookshelf that big in a while. The bookshelf set arrived the other day, and it’s enormous, and we love it. We had the whole thing filled in about four hours. It’s a beautiful, joyous thing, now — you walk into our house and there hundreds of books, floor to ceiling, climbing higher, a ladder to reach the top ones, infinite possibilities.
I sent a photo of the bookshelves to a friend of mine. He called a bit later to say he liked it. And then he asked if we planned on opening a blacksmith shop in the backyard.