Monday, January 18, 2021

Books as props

When I was a teen, a restaurant in the town where I lived had two separate dining rooms: a brightly lit room with lots of windows where most diners ate, and a smaller wood-paneled room with walls of books for business meetings or other situations that benefited from less chatter and distraction. The hostess would seat customers in whichever room they requested. 

Needless to say, the book room was always my choice. Even back then, I instinctively enjoyed being surrounded by reading material. It was fun to order a meal, then pluck a random volume off a shelf and dip into it. I wondered how the restaurant managers had accumulated such a collection, and commended their bravery in letting the books be handled by careless members of the public.

It wasn't until many year later I heard about wholesale book-sellers that would sell books by the foot (or yard) for decorating restaurants, coffee shops, offices, or other settings.What a concept!

Just recently I stumbled across an article entitled "Washington’s Secret to the Perfect Zoom Bookshelf? Buy It Wholesale." The article mentioned a company called "Books by the Foot," which sells books in volume by every criteria imaginable: subject, color, political suasion, size, age, genre, etc. everything except individual titles (they will direct you to their sister site for that purpose). Their slogan warms my heart: "Rescuing millions of books since 1980."

Once the province of movie sets, television studio sets, model homes, or the unread contents of executive mansions, volume books are becoming mainstream.

The article begins: "In a place like Washington small, interconnected, erudite, gossipy being well-read can create certain advantages. So, too, can seeming well-read. The 'Washington bookshelf' is almost a phenomenon in itself, whether in a hotel library, at a think tank office or on the walls behind the cocktail bar at a Georgetown house. And, as with nearly any other demand of busy people and organizations, it can be conjured up wholesale, for a fee."

Whatever the purpose of these wholesale books, I admire the ethos of Books by the Foot's president, Chuck Roberts: "Roberts opened the first of Wonder Book’s three locations in 1980, but Books by the Foot began with the dawn of the internet in the late 1990s. A lover of books who professes to never want to see them destroyed, he described the service as a way to make lemonade out of lemons; in this case, the lemons are used books, overstock books from publishers or booksellers, and other books that have become either too common or too obscure to be appealing to readers or collectors. 'Pretty much every book you see on Books by the Foot [is a book] whose only other option would be oblivion,' Roberts says."

How cool is that? Personally, it sounds like a place I'd love to work (a three-acre warehouse full of four million books!).

Apparently Books by the Foot has exploded in popularity since the lockdowns began as people realized the ordinary d├ęcor of their homes was insufficiently erudite under a pitiless Zoom lens. So, to project intellectual gravitas, everyone from politicians to businessmen to schoolteachers bought large volumes of books specifically curated to set the stage and reflect the persona they want coworkers to see. These are being called "credibility bookshelves."

It also seems Books by the Foot is seeing more orders for functional libraries rather than simply vanity props: "For most of the year, the coronavirus pandemic switched up the proportion of Books by the Foot’s commercial to residential projects. In July, Roberts said residential orders, which had previously accounted for 20 percent of business, now accounted for 40 percent. That was partly due to the closures of offices and hotels, Roberts noted – but a few other things were afoot, too. For one, more people were ordering books with the apparent intent to read them. 'We’re seeing an uptick in books by subject, which are usually for personal use,' Roberts said over the summer. Because many people suddenly had extra time at home but hardly anyone was able to shop in brick-and-mortar stores, orders for, say, 10 feet of mysteries, or three feet of art books, rose in popularity."

We're still waiting to get the majority of our books out of storage, at which point we, too, will be able to set the stage for our home with yards of shelves. But our books aren't hoity-toity props. They simply reflect our eclectic reading interests and favorite sedentary pursuit, with a secondary benefit of being beautiful.

And I still love to see large volumes of volumes.

Naturalist Gerald Durrell wrote, "To have well-stocked bookshelves cuddling you is like having a thousand sights, sounds, smells and sparkling ideas. Books are things to be cherished in the same way people cherish jewels, great paintings or great architecture. It is an honor to turn the pages of a book."

I agree.


  1. Yep, books are my friends. With a book and a good imagination, one is never alone.

  2. So many books, so little time. I love books, always have and simply cannot imagine my life without them. I have lost/misplaced more than I can count, have read many more than I can count, have read 90% of the classics of history and of the Western World, countless biography's, and have given away more than I can count. Have never been able to afford a college education, but have read everything I needed to learn and then some. When you can read you can teach yourself anything.
    The most memorable thing I have learned in all my years is this simple fact: The more I learn the more I realize how little I know!

  3. I love books to read, but discovered the air of erudite gravitas they imbue when people commented on the breadth of my reading choices. However, one summer, I sold or donated 800 books. It hurt, but the 1000 I had left were more comfortable with the space.

  4. When we moved 1400 miles to a place only 2/3 the size of our former residence, we donated over a thousand books (most bought used) to a library fund raising book sale. We were determined not to accumulate so many books again. They just occupied too much space,etc. Five years later we have accumulated over half that number once again—not counting the ones we moved with us. Added to that I have over a thousand on my E-reader. Some of us are book addicts.

  5. I am thrilled that people are apparently discovering the value of books and reading again. The fact that some of this started by a simply vanity of wanting to look "educated" is an inconsistency I will have to accept.

  6. Wonderful post! It brought to mind a quote from long ago. I was fifteen, I think, and watching Carl Sagan's "Cosmos." In one of the episodes he was talking about the Library of Alexandria and said the following:

    "Books permit us to voyage through time, to tap the wisdom of our ancestors. The library connects us with the insights and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. Public libraries depend on voluntary contributions. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries."

    Now, I don't know how many public libraries are run off of voluntary donation rather than taxes. But I think the rest of it is spot on.

    Also, a number of years ago I was dating a woman. It was early in the relationship. The first time I had her to my home, she came in, looked around, and said "What do you have all these books for?"

    Needless to say, it didn't last.

  7. Is that last photo from Browsers?

    1. I was wondering that myself! I haven’t been in since it changed ownership...

    2. Nope, just a neat photo from the internet somewhere. I went into Browsers once since it changed ownership. The floor plan had changed, of course, and I missed the rather charming jumble of stacks of books all over the floor, but it retained much of its affectionate character. I think the new owners will do well by it.

      - Patrice

  8. Reading! What joy! Always and forever.

  9. Eye candy: photos of full bookshelves and photos of full pantry shelves. I have always lived to read and would probably be broke if I fully indulged my book passion.

  10. I can't live without books. I have 4 bookshelves and need to buy another to fit all the books I buy. Life is empty without books.

  11. If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need... Cicero