Book collections weigh heavy on Clark County baby boomers
Readers pare down, decide what to take into next chapter of their lives
By Erin Middlewood, Columbian Features Editor Published: February 5, 2023, 6:05am
Vancouver area resident Lisa Emmerich displays a copy of "The Sea Lion," signed by author Ken Kesey. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Lisa Emmerich and her husband, Frank, are planning to move from their home near Vancouver to a smaller place in Santa Fe, N.M., now that they have both retired. To do that, they must pare down their possessions — especially their books. They moved into their current home 20 years ago, and given that both worked as educators, they filled a dozen bookcases. Since preparing for their move, Lisa Emmerich estimates she has spent about 120 hours culling books. “The funny thing is, books keep turning up here and there,” said Lisa, 63. “It really is hard to let them go. If we hadn’t decided to make a big move, then we would not have touched them.” The Emmerichs are among baby boomers in Clark County and across the country weighing books in their hands, flipping through the pages, and deciding if they will bring them in the next chapter of their lives. Kol Shaver of Zephyr Used & Rare Books in Vancouver said he’s never seen so many books flood the market.
“We’re having a turn of generations,” Shaver said. “It’s simple demographics.” Discarded books have also been flowing to the Fort Vancouver Regional Library Foundation, which accepts donations, then sells them to raise money for the library system. “Boomers are getting to that point where they are cleaning up their households because they don’t want to make their kids do it,” said Rick Smithrud, the foundation’s executive director. Paper vs. electronic Emmerich said getting rid of books isn’t like purging other possessions. With the couple’s artwork, it was easy to tell by a glance what they would keep. “Picking up a book and leafing through the pages,” she said, “there’s a tactile experience that’s different.” Despite wider adoption of electronic books, readers still prefer print on paper. About three-quarters of books are sold as paperbacks, hardbacks or other physical form, according to the Association of American Publishers’ November 2022 snapshot of sales.
Once those books are in people’s homes, they take on a new dimension. “Books are magic,” said Linda Micheel, a 75-year-old Vancouver resident. She and her husband are celebrating their 50th anniversary. They’ve lived in the same house for almost 30 years but are beginning to think about weeding through their many — 986 and still counting — books. “They’re like touchstones,” Micheel said. “They are not just books. I feel very differently about the ones I have on my shelf than the hundreds I have on Kindle.” Loved one’s books The decision to unload books carried a special weight for Gail Krueger, 68. She and her husband, Doug, lived in Savannah, Ga. When Doug died in 2009, he left behind 3,000 books. She said she found good homes for as many as she could before moving to Vancouver, where she’s starting life with a new mate, but she still has too many books. She recently donated some 15 to 20 boxes to Birdhouse Books in Vancouver. “Getting rid of Doug’s books was like getting rid of Doug,” Krueger said. “Some women who have been widowed have a desperately difficult time getting rid of clothes. That wasn’t a problem for me. It was the books.” Others expressed similar anguish about winnowing books left behind by a loved one, whether a spouse or parents.
A selection of historical books and classic novels are pictured at the Vancouver area home of retired educators Lisa and Frank Emmerich. Photo Karan LaBonne, an 80-year-old Vancouver resident, said she has been dusting her late husband David’s collection of hardbound books since he died in 2015. “I do think there’s some value to some of these books but only for the right person,” LaBonne said. “But that’s one in how many in all of Vancouver?” Selling, donating Bibliophiles are particular about where their books go. Like LaBonne, they want to put books in the hands of someone who will value and enjoy them. Selling used books can be tricky. Powell’s Books in Portland, which bills itself as the world’s largest independent bookstore, offers only trade credit for books brought to the store. (It will pay cash for some titles if you conduct the transaction online.) Book buyers are selective. You can schlep several boxes to Powell’s and have the store take only one or two books and then need to haul the rest back home. The same is true at Vancouver’s Vintage Books, which also offers trade credit — not so helpful if you’re trying to get rid of books and avoid buying more.
Other stores like Birdhouse Books in downtown Vancouver and Literary Leftovers in Battle Ground don’t offer trade credit but will take book donations. “There are many titles that remain desirable, some becoming more. A lot of material — you can’t give it away,” said Shaver, who used to have brick-and-mortar bookstores in Woodland and Vancouver but now operates Zephyr Books online. He has seen boxes of prized books sent off to be pulped for lack of a market. “People say, ‘I know it’s really old so it must be valuable,’ ” said Becky Milner, owner of Vintage Books. “But a book from three years ago signed by Bruce Springsteen is more valuable than a 1903 fairy tale book.” Larry Hellie, a 77-year-old Vancouver resident, had luck selling books from his collection on the American Indian Wars. He found a dealer in South Carolina, paid $1,800 to ship the books and still netted $7,000. But he’s tried to donate other historical books to museums and specialty libraries without success.
“It’s reaching the point where books are just diminishing in value,” Hellie said. One in, one out Those who aren’t looking for compensation for their books might slip a book or two at a time into Little Free Libraries around town. The Fort Vancouver Regional Library Foundation and its ancillary groups at each library branch will accept just about any books that aren’t damaged or smoke-tainted, as does Goodwill. “I constantly get rid of books as I read them,” said Laura Riggs, a 69-year-old Vancouver resident, although she admits she still has many around the house from before she adopted that policy. Cindy Skrivanek, 68, moved to Orchards from California about four years ago. She got rid of a lot of books beforehand but packed about 20 boxes of books with her. Most were related to her work in human resources, and when she decided to fully retire, she donated 15 of those boxes to the library foundation. She bought a Kindle and uses the library more. But she still prefers to read and mark physical copies for her various book study groups. And Skrivanek said she’s not letting go of one 4-foot-high case of sentimental books, like the Bible her grandmother gave her when she was in first grade. “The kids are going to have to deal with that.”
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