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The Final Book Sale

I need money. This is a familiar writer refrain.

To make a living, I do a combination of regular part-time work, contract work and odd jobs─real labor like the rest of the working world, but a combo that buys me to time to do my low- to no-paying literary writing─and in a pinch I’ve also sold valuables. Mostly, that means books.

Working at a bookstore for six years and constantly scouring thrift stores, used bookstores and free piles has meant I’ve collected a lot of books. Some were valuable. Most were only valuable to me as a reader, and their resale value resulted from their sheer numbers. During my twenties and early thirties, books were the only investment I had, which is a lousy one as investments go, yet when I needed a quick hit of cash, I hauled them to sell at Powell’s. When I moved from Oregon to New York, I sold a bunch to cover moving expenses. When I moved back to Oregon, I sold more to create cash flow. I once visited someone’s Manhattan home where they had, as I remember it, a $30,000 first edition of Leaves of Grass signed by Walt Whitman on the shelf. My book sales bought me U-hauls and burritos. They were stop-gaps. Books have been something I could always lean on, for company, for education, for pleasure and enlightenment and a challenge, and to help me explore and understand our world. As objects, they’ve also helped me pay rent and buy groceries. When I became a reader as a kid, I never thought I’d use books as currency, but that’s how it’s worked out in adulthood. This continuous chiseling away at my library has left me with a very deliberate, select assemblage of books displayed on our shelves, as well as a few plastic storage tubs full of tomes in our basement. Right now I need money, but is there anything left to sell?

Curious, I ducked into our basement one July day to take stock. It was 91 degrees outside but cool down there. Light poured through our side windows. Our dog’s claws clicked on the wooden floor overhead. As I played some music, I set my last tubs of books on the floor and started picking through them one by one. The time had come to make tough decisions. The criteria had long been obvious: what did I need these for anymore? If I’d read them once and liked them moderately well, why hang on to them? And if I hadn’t read them yet, would I ever? Don’t even get me started on the idea of rereading anything. I’d been carrying these facts around with me for as long as I’d had many of these books. I just didn’t have the need to act on it.

Dust had settled on some of the tubs. Spiders scurried out of others. I found desert books I’d loved in college by Lawrence Clark Powell, Mary Austin, Charles Bowden and Edward Abbey. I found books on Arizona history that my dad gave me, books on architecture that I thought looked interesting, books on tea, Southern cooking, Japanese cooking, jazz, garage rock, Canada, biography, biogeography and hydrology, some with intricate color-coded maps. Then came the memoirs and short story collections, then every volume of the Best American Essays and many Non-Required Reading anthologies, the essential literary publications that I, as a writer and MFA graduate, told myself I should own. Then I found the magazines. Good lord, so many magazines, old issues of glossy titles that I still read, and some that I’d written for, whose names will go unmentioned.

Sitting on the concrete floor, I remembered how I always have to go through my books and erase all the notes I’d written in the margins; I like to interact with what I read. I also recognized my own rationale among the familiar-looking covers. I’d kept many of these books with no intent of reading them. Some, like the one about the part of central California I’m writing a book about, were research sources. Others were sources for old projects that I had planned to work on but had abandoned or never gotten to. That meant that I’d hauled them around, house to house and state to state for going on twenty years, with the hope that the information inside their little brick bodies would someday justify all the expensive shipping and rearranging and lugging up and down stairs. So far, few had.

Going through the boxes, another situation became clear. After my many large purges over the years, I had, as the wine people say, reached the bottom of the barrel. Now that I wanted to do one last sale, to push the pump deeper into that final layer of strata to extract whatever black gold was left, that meant selling the books I’d resisted selling the longest, the ones that survived all the other liquidations, like the supposedly hard-to-find titles that I didn’t necessarily need but didn’t think I would find again, either. And then there were the books I told myself I couldn’t part with for personal reasons. The ones I savored during a particular period of time, the ones that reminded me of my youth─these were the hardest category. The emotional editions were the bedrock I’d always felt good knowing were there. They were the books whose presence comforted me, even if I didn’t read or use them. But then the question is: if they’re in a box in a basement that I rarely open, do I really need them? I needed to harvest their monetary value now, not some imaginary palliative service they provided. It made me sad to say it. Unfortunately, saying it never made it easier to do.

Sometimes when I looked at my library, the books resembled the days of my youth, each one representing the distinct short period when I lived them. Like youth, they were spent, so why hang on to them? Other times I thought that was the best reason to never let go.

We hang onto the artifacts of youth for many reasons. Sometimes we hang on because we aren’t ready to let go of that time and place, or to let go of certain people. Sometimes we hang on because the person who first bought and loved those books has grown up, either becoming the person they’d imagined they’d become, or failing to achieve what they’d envisioned. Yes, I buy books to read, but books connect me to different stages of my past, and only when I saw them spread around my floor did I realize how painful that was to let go of.

It’s crazy. Even with this huge library of surplus titles that I knew I’d never have time to consume, I kept buying books. Friends recommended titles and I bought them. New books came out and I bought them. Friends and colleagues published books I wanted to read, while publishers sent review copies of books that I wanted to promote, but I rarely got to them. And yet, I kept buying. Then the new acquisitions perched atop the pyramid of all the books I already had! As bibliophile author A. Edward Newton said, “The buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching toward infinity.” I’ve always loved this quote, partly because of that sense of hunger and ambition, of devouring life, but this was too much. The time had come to slow this intensive growth phase down to something manageable.

The thing about us bibliophiles is that if we quit buying books right now, we would still never get to all the ones we already owned. I certainly didn’t need more. I needed to read what I had, or to liquidate many to make room for a few select new ones per year. At one point, I vowed to my wife that I would quit buying books, or at least buy no more than one once in a while. I’ve kept pretty well to it. Now when we travel, I don’t even go into bookstores. Why tempt myself?

In the basement, I still had to answer the original questions: what could I afford to part with, and what did I really need to keep?

To understand peoples’ relationships to material items and writers to books, you can survey current psychology studies and theories about material possession and happiness, or you can look around. The Self-Storage Industry is an interesting study. One way to see proof of the counterintuitive principle that the less you own, the happier you are, is through the private storage industry. By looking closely at what’s called “self-storage,” you can see the facets of the relationship between material abundance and personal frustration, as well as the financial, environmental and psychological costs of ownership.

“Storage” might be an American concept, but it has blossomed into a lucrative global industry. Of the world’s 59,500 self-storage facilities, the US contains approximately 55,000 of them. Canada has over 3,000. Facilities with names like “U-Store” litter urban areas with the faceless familiarity of fast food chains. “Air-conditioned,” the signs say. “Move-in special!” This industry has its own association, its own magazine. It even generated the reality TV series Storage Wars, where professional buyers purchase the contents of unpaid self-storage units in the hope of turning a profit. In a capitalist nation of such material abundance, one out of every ten American households rents a unit. Depending on the facility’s location and the items’ value, it’s often cheaper to rent storage than to rent a bigger apartment. But that logic misses something fundamental. It’s even cheaper to own less.

It’s no surprise that an industry has emerged to capitalize off the spoils of consumer gluttony–as the German thinker Herbert Marcuse said: “The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment”–but it is illuminating. Space has a price. In a crowded world, what’s a few square feet worth to you? Between the initial price you pay for your belongings, and the price you pay to keep them, the cost of ownership begs another question: when you don’t interact with your books or furniture or record collection regularly, do you really need them at all? This subsection will use the complexities of the global storage industry to explore the psychology of ownership, and the liberation of liquidation. How do different countries think about ownership and overabundance? Why is the storage industry not as widespread in Australia and Europe?

A few years ago, I had to rent my first storage unit. I rented a small room in a house with some friends and had enough room to keep things in the garage and closets. When I moved into my wife’s one-bedroom apartment, I no longer had room, so I got a small storage unit and shoved my stuff inside. Most of it was books. Immediately, I started the long process of liquidating nearly everything inside it. The monthly fees and practical irritations of pulling stuff out and rearranging it only supported the argument for scaling back.

For writers, books are always the heaviest things to move. It makes you appreciate the way cloud storage and digitization have freed up physical space. They lift our burden. In some ways, the cloud is the new self-storage, yet it seems to undermine the very thing that drives self-storage by decreasing our personal attachment to things like books. I no longer have a storage unit, but only because we have this basement. Although I don’t read e-books, I understand the appeal.

The question of ownership brings to mind a grotesque character in George Lucas and Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth. Known as The Junk Lady, she carries all she owns on her back. A chair, a drum, pots and rags, all piled in a mound on her back. She gathers refuse in an area known as The Junk Fields, and makes her slow way around permanently hunched over, burdened by her possessions and nearly crushed by them. Her goods are her handicap. What “good” do they even bring?

Another way to illuminate this relationship between ownership and lightness of being is through the Buddhist adage, “half a mat to sit, one mat to lie down.” The saying links happiness with austerity, but Buddha connects happiness to one’s living arrangement, too. He’s saying you don’t need much stuff to live, just a tatami mat, and not always a whole one at that. And you don’t need much room to be happy, just enough space to stretch out at night. To that I would add: and a small, rich, highly personal library.

If I didn’t need money, I’d probably keep all these books. Scratch that: I know I would. Since I have room, they’re not in the way. But in the end, this final purge is healthy. I don’t want my life cluttered with unnecessary items any more than I want my mind filled with sad memories and painful remembrances, or to drag on from the collected weight of my history. I want to move on and create new memories. I will always read, and I will always buy books, but I’m looking toward the future, onto to a few new books and a lot of new experiences. When I’m sixty and there’s little future left, then I might start hanging onto my past again. For now, I’m cleaning house. Hopefully Powell’s buys some of this stuff. There’s really not much left. We’ll have to find other stuff to store in these empty bins.