Rehoming Dad’s Book Collection

I fill up the boot of my car with yet another load of Dad’s books. I have to decide which ones to keep, which to give to family, which to donate, and even which to sell. My former-librarian brother-in-law told me about a second-hand bookshop in the neighbourhood so I decide to find homes for at least some of the books there. I park outside the bookshop and as I absentmindedly start to open the door, the passenger door of the adjacent Land Rover simultaneously opens to fill the same spot.

“Thank you!” snaps the lady in the passenger seat, from the towering height of the Land Rover, clearly in a huff.

I quickly shut my door so she can exit, and then venture to open mine again. Then I enter the bookstore and find myself in a narrow passage between crammed bookshelves reaching to the ceiling. The proprietor rises to greet me. The loss of Dad, the thought of parting with his treasured possessions, and being on the receiving end of the irritation of the Land Rover passenger are all too much and I feel my face burning and my voice beginning to falter.

“I have a pile of books in the boot. I’m not sure if any of them will interest you though.”

“Let me come and have a look,” the proprietor suggests.

She comes outside and I open the boot. She deftly chooses the books that she knows have resale value.

“Are you sure you want to part with these? I don’t have to take any of them,” she offers, noticing my distress.

“I have plenty more. I just want them to go to someone who will appreciate them.”

We return to the bookshop and she looks up the value of the books she has chosen on the computer.

“This one was published in 1906 and sells for three pounds in the UK. I can offer you $6.00 for it. Altogether, I can offer you $20 for these books.”

I accept her offer. I have been left in charge of making decisions about Dad’s books and other possessions and just need to make some inroads into this daunting task.

“If you change your mind, please come back and we will return your books to you.”

I trust her, hoping the books will land in the hands of someone who appreciates them.

Meanwhile, I return to my car and realize that the remaining books have no resale value, so I decide to take them home.

The only problem is that now I don’t have enough shelving space for all of these books. They are stocked in boxes in the spare room. I ask my husband Rick to help me choose some shelves for the spare room. I work overseas and trust that Rick will have found some shelves in my absence, but when I return the books are still in boxes. I am disappointed not to be greeted upon my return from my latest trip by a wall lined with shelves. I don’t care what kind of shelves we have, but Rick is an aesthete. He will only acquire something if the colour and shape enhance the room. I work hard to overcome my long-suffering tendencies and throw a rare tantrum. I want my shelves, now! It’s unusual that I insist on anything but I will make an exception for shelves. Meanwhile Rick is carefully deliberating the IKEA catalogue, measuring the dimensions of the room, calculating the width and depth of the shelves, and debating the colour of the shelves in the catalogue.

I return to my parents’ home to tackle Dad’s National Geographic collection. They are stashed in a wardrobe in the garage. I carry piles of the magazines and place them in the boot of my car. We don’t have enough spaces for books in our house, and magazines are a low priority. I do manage to salvage the classic issue of the refugee in Afghanistan with the pale green eyes, and take the rest of them straight to the Goodwill opportunity shop.

I retrieve the piles of magazines from the boot and place them near the cashier, rather than in the bins outside, hoping to salvage some dignity for them.

“I hope someone can enjoy these,” I say to the volunteer staff member, as once again my cheeks start to burn and my voice starts to waver.

She smiles, assuring me that someone will treasure them, and thanks me. I am sure she understands. Why else would someone donate stockpiles of magazines from a previous generation to an op shop, in such obvious distress?

I return to my parents’ home and venture into the shed. I can hardly make my way past the door because of the boxes of documents and newsletters dating from the 1960’s blocking the pathway. So many artefacts document Dad’s many interests, but it is overwhelming. After salvaging a few items I place the rest into the recycle bin. Then I am able to move into the back of the shed and find boxes of books. Some of them are from my grandparents’ newsagency lending library dating from the 1930s. Inside each book there is a notice indicating the cost of borrowing, a warning not to spill cigarette ash on the books, and reassurance that they have been hygienically sprayed.

As I open them the leaves fall apart in my hands, so most of them come to their demise in the recycle bin. Next there is a collection of books from the 1930s with titles such as How to Make a Shop Pay, and How to Make Advertising Pay, and I realize how much financial distress my grandparents must have felt ninety years ago.

In more boxes there are novels, poetry collections, art books, history books, and a large collection of books about trains. I never read without a fluorescent highlighter in hand, so I can return to passages that impress me, but Dad has hardly written in his books. Instead, he has inserted newspaper cuttings over the years in related sections of his book collection. I can see where his thoughts have wandered and what he has noticed.

I emerge from the shed with dust all over my fingers and clothes. Many of the books are covered in grime, so I dust them over. Then I decide which family members I will offer books to – railway books to Dad’s great-grandsons, valuable books to my sister Saskia who has a grand library in her home, and art books to my daughter Heloise. I place more books in my boot, but there are still cupboards full of hidden books and more boxes of books that I can’t decide what to do with.

By now Rick has responded to my uncharacteristic nagging. He has sensed the desperation in my voice when I lament my distress at the boxes of books blocking the walkway in our spare room. We continue to peruse the IKEA catalogue. I manage to overcome my indecisiveness, and he manages to overcome his perfectionism, in order to make a decision. After much deliberating we make a choice of off-white Scandinavian shelves which almost reach to the ceiling. Rick and Heloise head off to IKEA in our small car and secure the last item in stock of our chosen model. They return with a car full of planks, and within days Rick has assembled an elegant bookcase.

Now I can enjoy the satisfaction of organizing Dad’s books at my whim, according to themes and the age of the books. More importantly, we can reminisce over Dad’s interests over the years as the hundreds of newspaper cuttings tumble out while we leaf through the pages, celebrating his life.

Richard Clarence Stephens

Note: I have used pseudonyms for all characters apart from Dad.

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  1. I seldom comment on articles on the site, Meredith, but I really fell into this piece of writing. I can only imagine your anguish at parting with your Dad’s treasured books, what a wonderful man he must have been to accumulate so many, and what wonderful memories you now have of him on your shelves. A lovely write and a beautiful tribute.

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