By In Stuff



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.

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22 Responses to Bookshelves

  1. Ryan says:

    Was that friend Michael Schur? Sounds like something he would ask. . .

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I used to work at Rainy Day Books and know how enthusiastically your family reads! I’m so happy thinking of you with the Belle Shelves. For my 16th birthday, my parents had three bookshelves made for me. They have turned out to be the best gift I’ve ever received.

  3. Malvo says:

    Alternate theory: Bookshelves are an incredibly easy DIY project so people who need them make their own.

    • DJ Mc says:

      Actually, I think there’s a different answer embedded in Joe’s own words.

      “…even though we have poorly constructed IKEA bookshelves all over the house.”

      Because bookshelves are so simple, it’s also fairly easy to make prefabricated kits out of cheap (but still reasonably strong) materials and sell them at every department and discount store.

      Since fewer and fewer people are including shelves as an essential part of their furniture, when they look to buy something to hold their books this is the route they take.

      • Rob Smith says:

        That’s not it. People don’t buy many books, cameras, basic calculators, etc. Cable TV is fading and I just ordered Braves tickets and parking passes all are mobile tickets. Plane boarding passes are now mobile and many plane carriers are phasing out TVs. The world is changing fast.

  4. PERRY SCOTT says:

    Joe, I completely understand. There’s something magical about a book. Something that makes you want to include them in your life and give them a Gatsby setting. With me it’s Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, and The Hobbit. A correlative thread runs through them. But I digress or possibly nod. My main bookcase was built about thirty years ago by a real artisan that I knew through our daughters. He was losing his place of work and was concerned about a piece of wood that he wanted to take but was too cumbersome to transport. It’s such a beautiful piece of wood but I haven’t found the right use for it. I swear a tear rolled down his cheek. I explained my situation and he solved the problem immediately much to the utter dismay of his other customers who waited months for a finished product or just an answer. Years later I ran into him in an ATM and his first words were how his bookcase was doing.

  5. invitro says:

    I read a few hundred books a year, and they’re neither actual books nor on Kindle. I find them on the Internet and print them. It costs about 20 cents for me to print a book, so that rules out Kindle for me… I’d much rather read paper than screen, anyway. I own a few thousand books, which is ridiculous. I have dozens of bookshelves of all types from “real” bookshelves, to prefab ones, to ones I made. And they’re all full, and the rest of my books are in dozens (or hundreds) of big boxes, or in piles all over my house. It’s a problem, really. I need to try to sell or else throw away all but my favorite thousand of them. 🙁

    I’m not a huge fan of the changes that have occurred in US society over the last 25 years — and I think there actually hasn’t been all that much change, I’d guess much, much less change than in any other 25-year period of history. But the ease of finding about half of all the books I’m interested in for free on the Internet — now that’s one awesomely great change.

    • Rob Smith says:

      I’m interested why you think there hasn’t been much change in the last 25 years. The last 25 years includes the era, the SmartPhone era, an explosion in robotics, not to mention all the political polarization that’s going on.

      You could argue the initial position you took that you weren’t a fan of the changes, that’s certainly an argument to be made. But to say there haven’t been that many changes? If you go back 25 years to 1992, we were still largely a mainframe computer world, with some advances in PCs where you had decent spreadsheet and word processing programs plus some rudimentary accounting programs and a few other things. In 1992 I wasn’t even aware of the Internet just yet, and the closest to that I had was CompuServe and a rudimentary BillPay service that both used a dial up modem. Actually I think I was still printing checks on Quicken back then, I don’t think they added the electronic BillPay feature until a little later.

      Man, I think it’s a drastically different world than 25 years ago.

      • invitro says:

        Well, in general, I do remember life in 1992 quite clearly, and I remember it being hardly at all different than life in 2017. The big change is spending a lot of time on the Internet, but I started doing that in 1993, so that doesn’t count. Computers were actually not all that different in 1992 than they are now. They’re a little bit higher resolution, but I don’t think programs run any faster now… the increase in CPU speed has been matched by the increase in garbage put into OS’s and programs. The big change was having personal computers at all, and that happened in the 1975-1990 era… in 1992, I’d had my Mac IIsi for 2 years, and used it for pretty much the same things I use my current computer for. The spreadsheet and word processing programs I used in 1992 (Excel and Word) were every bit as good and as fast for my purposes as 2017 programs are.

        I don’t have a smartphone, and get along just fine without one. Even for those who do have one, is making phone calls in your car all that much different from making them from your home or office? I don’t think so.

        Robotics? I’m not sure if you’re joking, but I’m not aware of robotics in my daily life.

        I think the uproar over political polarization is greatly overstated. I seriously doubt whether people are much more political than they were in 1992… you just hear about every crackpot in the news now. I was in college then, and I don’t believe there are any more ultra-political people now than there were then, and I bet there were actually a lot more back in 1968.

        But I don’t know. I’m saying this because people do say how much life has changed, and I’ve often looked around me and thought, funny, my life feels pretty much the same as in 1992 (or even the late 1980’s), but the 1960’s seem drastically different. The biggest change to me actually seems to be that popular music is so goddurn awful now. 🙂

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I love printed books too and I cherish the ones I have, but I stopped buying print books when I got my kindle in 2010. I so love having my entire reading list with me at all times. I love reading and eating and when I go into a restaurant, now I can just pop out my kindle and not have to look silly carrying a big book. Plus, it’s so easy and relatively cheap to buy e-books. I do miss the tactile sensation of holding a book. But, I was running out of space on my bookshelves anyway. I always read quite a book but now I read 2-3 times as many books with my Kindle as I did when I was buying printed books, simply because I always have access to reading material.

  6. murr2825 says:

    Man, I’d like to see a picture of that bookcase you ended up buying

  7. Alter Kacker says:

    Try Craigslist. You’ll find dozens, if not hundreds, of real bookcases — cheap.

  8. invitro says:

    “People still read thankfully, but not print and paper books, not so much, not anymore.” — I was curious if people really are reading less books (real books or screens). There seems to be quite a few surveys on the matter, and apparently Americans are reading much, much less. From — 8% of people read no books in the previous year in 1978, 16% in 1990, and 23% in 2014. (More interesting to me personally is that presumably a massive book reader is defined as reading about 50 books a year… which is about two months for me.)

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Well, now you have made me feel bad. I felt that I was a voracious reader, but I have never read 50 in a year; last year I got to 45. But I believe I read more than most people these days. I think reading has gone down in recent years in connection with the upsurge in social media and, what I think is a general decline in intellectual interest.

      If you read 50 books in two months-geez, congrats, that’s pretty amazing.

  9. invitro says:

    Also, Joe’s claim that people don’t read print/paper books any more, and instead read e-books, seems to be false. In this Pew survey (the same one with the 23% number above), of people who read a book in 2013, 91% were printed books, while only 37% were e-books. Well, you can have fun interpreting surveys, but it looks to me like the decline in book reading has very little to do with e-books. Pew survey:

  10. Eric MacKenzie says:

    I had this same experience while trying to find a bookshelf about five years ago. I feel your pain.

  11. Robert says:

    Maybe it’s nostalgia (I’m 69) but there is nothing more satisfying than sitting down with an actual physical book. If you’re lucky it even smells old. I Kindle it on airplanes to avoid talking to the guy in the middle, but I paper book it for relaxation. A glass of wine makes it the perfect hour or so. I’m currently on Steppenwolf (not the band).

  12. Crazy Diamond says:

    My wife and I love reading and have quite a few books but we could never find a great bookshelf! We spent YEARS trying to find something classy and sturdy and well-built (American-made, preferably) and just couldn’t find much other than antique bookshelves. So finally we went to an Amish Furniture store here in Chicago and found some BEAUTIFUL bookshelves! They were made by hand in rural Ohio. I highly recommend going Amish for your furniture. It’s more expensive, but it’s worth it! And you’ll never have to replace them like the cheap junk at most big box retailers.

  13. Rob Smith says:

    I remember buying a cabinet for a TV about 15 years ago. You can’t give them away any more. Goodwill won’t even take them. Flat screen TVs are too large and are mounted differently than the large, deep TVs of 15 years ago. If you have one of those cabinets, it’s essentially firewood at this point.

    I was lucky to sell one of those fat TVs for $25 about 5 years ago when some Dad thought it would be a great TV for his kid to play video games on. I don’t think that Dad exists today. They’d just pickup a smaller flat screen for $90 somewhere.

  14. Ian says:

    I know a few people who e-read but they all love books and have real books, too. And there are a lot of people like me who despise kindles and the like and will only hold real books. Our house is full of book shelves and I’m honestly surprised that you had trouble finding book shelves. In our area – Minnesota – we can find them at all the furniture stores plus places like Target, Walmart, Ikea etc. And kid bookshelves seem to be a really expensive racket.

  15. AdamE says:

    I have a solution to the bookshelf problem. Every college (or almost every college) has a place that they get rid of their surplus stuff. (some auction it off instead of having a store) Colleges are just like everywhere else and bookshelves are going the way of the dodo, so their surplus/ auctions are full of bookshelves. Best part about it is they are usually extremely cheap.

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