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News / Life / Clark County Life

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 Managing Editor for Content
Published: February 5, 2023, 6:05am
5 Photos
Retired Evergreen High School Principal Lisa Emmerich says getting rid of books isn't like purging other possessions.
Retired Evergreen High School Principal Lisa Emmerich says getting rid of books isn't like purging other possessions. "Picking up a book and leafing through the pages," she says, "there's a tactile experience that's different." (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

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.”

Getting rid of books

  • Sale/trade

Books must be in top condition if you intend to sell or trade them.

Vintage Books, 6613 E. Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver, 360-694-9519

Powell’s Books, 1005 W. Burnside St., Portland, 800-878-7323

Zephyr Used & Rare Books, 360-695-7767

  • Donate

Books cannot be damaged. Call to arrange to drop-offs of large quantities.

Birdhouse Books, 1001 Main St., Vancouver; 360-602-1098; open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday

Literary Leftovers, 813 W. Main St., Suite 105, Battle Ground; 360-342-8268; open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday

Fort Vancouver Regional Library Foundation, 1007 E Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver; 360-906-4700; accepts book donations 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday; does not take encyclopedias or textbooks. (Friends of the Library groups associated with various branches also accept book donations in smaller quantities.)

Northwest Children’s Outreach, 6615 E. Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver; 503-828-1472; accepts books in good condition that are suitable for babies through teens; open 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Tuesday and Friday

Goodwill, various locations

Little Free Libraries, various locations

Bookseller of Bakau, online used-book seller, 360-904-7367

  • Recycle

According to Clark County’s Recycling A-Z guide, hardcover books cannot be recycled. First, remove the cover and discard it in the garbage. Then the paper inserts can be recycled. Paperback books can go in your blue recycling cart.

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.

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.”

More readers weigh in

When I asked readers to tell me if they thought they might have too many books and what they were doing with them, I was unprepared for the flood of responses. I interviewed or corresponded with about 30 avid readers. Here’s a sampling of what they had to say, edited for length and clarity.

— Erin Middlewood

I experienced the perfect storm of book abundance last spring. I’m nearing retirement from elementary teaching and have accumulated quite a collection over the years. I teach at Mill Plain Elementary, which is currently under construction. Not only was I trying to clear out my parents’ estate, I had to eliminate about half my student library prior to moving to our temporary building. I sent dozens of books home with individual students and twice filled my Crosstrek to deliver boxes of books to Goodwill. My parents were “collectors” and I delivered at least as many of their books to Goodwill as well. I had considered Vintage Books, but I didn’t want store credit to buy more books!

— Beky Rasmussen, Yacolt

My family loves to read. My childhood home was filled with books, including those from my grandfather dating to the 19th century. We had an encyclopedia from 1899 I loved to read.

My mother lived a long life and died at nearly 102 in the middle of reading a history book. When I visited her in the last years, we would sit reading because she was too deaf to carry on a conversation, but we could enjoy each other’s company. Fortunately there are libraries and I borrow constantly but I still own too many books. This is something that compounds as people of the boomer generation get older. Where are all their books going to go if they are like me and have no grandchildren or family in the area?

— Cynthia Heise-Swartz, Felida

I grew up with the saying, “You can never be bored if you know how to read.” I believe books are to be shared, so frequently I pass along “the good reads.” Friends know any book in the basket by the door is fair game. It’s often easier to simply give your books away than haul a box to Powell’s or Vintage for credit.

— Chris Dickinsen, Vancouver

My husband and I absolutely love books and own a few thousand at a best guess! We’re 65 and 70 with no kids, so it’s long past time to let our excess books go. But what if that one in the corner, slightly dusty, turns out to be a real treasure?

— Patrice Stewart, Vancouver

My teenage daughter and I have way too many books and we love reading. I am a children’s literature professor and have a huge library at Washington State University Vancouver. We are book fairies. We drive around to the Little Free Libraries and stuff them with books we have read and no longer want. Unfortunately, we also grab a book or two, too.

—Deanna Day-Wiff, Vancouver

I always have too many books. They are so hard to part with. When I remodeled and removed a 10-by-6-foot bookshelf, I donated 75 books to the Friends of the Library sale. I still hoarded my hard copy of favorites and kept about 25 books. I currently have about 60 books that I have already read. In the past, I would take a bag full of books to donate at semiannual Friends of the Library sales and then buy about 15 books to take home at 25 cents piece. They have a permanent sales shop in front of the Vancouver Community Library. I load up four or five books in my backpack and hop the bus over to that shop. I donate the old and buy four or five new ones. The Friends always earn twice on my books.

— Sandy Schilaty, Vancouver

There’s books here I’ll die with. I have a glassed-in bookcase with some first editions by Gary Howells, a master of building bamboo fly rods. I fished with him in Montana. Those are the kind of books I will keep.

— Craig Lynch, Ridgefield

The only room in our house that doesn’t have a bookshelf is the bathroom.

— Kathy Powell, Vancouver

I do have a terrible book addiction. I prefer a real book, the feel of turning the pages, the smell of a book. An e-reader is not my thing. I don’t have one. I end up with a lot of books. At some point you do have to make the purge. It’s so daunting.

— Vicki Vega, Camas

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.”