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Books as props

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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 just about any criteria you choose: 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 décor 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 have 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.


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