Housed in a former post office sorting center in Frederick, Maryland, the warehouse of Wonder Book is where unwanted used books go to find a second life. Chuck Roberts, Wonder Book's founder and president, supplies books by the foot to movie set designers, office managers, model home decorators, and to individual homeowners themselves. But before he can do that, the books must be sorted and organized--not by author, genre, or publication date, but by width and color. Bob visits Wonder Book and reflects on what happens when works of literature get an afterlife as "book-shaped objects." Plus, he hears from interior designer Bradley Stephens about what books mean in the home.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, to end this hour, we consider not the death of books but their afterlife, that is, what to do with a book that no one is ever likely to read again. You could pulp it, of course. But there are other options. For instance, when a book’s useful life ends, maybe it could finish up by essentially playing a book. What I mean is maybe it could land in the hands of a team of biblio-triage artists who make a living prolonging the shelf life of books that have long outgrown their readers. Bob explains.
[PACKING MACHINE SOUNDS]
BOB GARFIELD: In a former post-office sorting center in Frederick, Maryland, this is the sound of rescue.
[PACKING MACHINE SOUND]
BOB GARFIELD: It’s a packing machine, sending thousands of used and unsold new books off to welcoming owners every day, sparing countless pages the pulping machine or the landfill. In this three-acre warehouse, a staff of 50 labors to find new homes for the 4 million volumes that have landed on its 21 loading docks, from publishers, charities and just plain civilians downsizing or uncluttering or otherwise divesting their libraries. Chuck Roberts, founder and president of Wonder Books, shows me cartons upon cartons of the abandoned.
CHUCK ROBERTS: So what you’re looking at are just boxes of what we call raw books. These books need to go and be sorted or triaged, according to a pretty complex formula that’s evolved here over the last 15 years, since we’ve been on the internet, trying to maximize the value of every book, to try to get it to the right place to turn it into a nickel, a dime, a dollar. We have the retail stores where we sell books. We sell books on the internet to - through about 15 different selling platforms. We sell bulk books to people that send them overseas.
BOB GARFIELD: Oh, and one more channel. It’s called Books by the Foot, a sales segment that depends not on literary depth but on width. It was a niche Roberts discovered by tracking sales at his three used bookstores.
CHUCK ROBERTS: I would notice people buying books, and it turned out that they were interior decorators. They were buying books for clients by look or by a subject, and they would buy ‘em from us in the stores. And then I said, well, let’s work around that and then you can buy books from usless expensively than pulling ‘em off the shelves and buy ‘em in bulk.
BOB GARFIELD: Bulk - words. Now, before you get all huffy about the commodification of culture, Roberts wants you to know his motives aren’t entirely pecuniary.
CHUCK ROBERTS: These are books that we can't sell to readers or collectors and, if we can't do something with them, at a certain point we get filled up and they have to go to bad places, so -
BOB GARFIELD: They have to - they have to go to the farm?
CHUCK ROBERTS: [LAUGHS] Yeah, they’re gonna - your book is going to the farm.
BOB GARFIELD: Does it bother you when these things get pulped?
CHUCK ROBERTS: Uh, I can't stand to destroy a viable book.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you understand that they’re paper and they don’t have feelings?
CHUCK ROBERTS: Well, I have feelings. And also it, it’s financial too. If I can turn these 400 pallets of books into – you know, if I pay a nickel per book and I turn ‘em into a dime, then with that kind of volume, you’re talkin’ about a little bit of money there.
BOB GARFIELD: But who exactly is he nickel and diming? Well, there are the TV and film sets, such as Sleepy Hollow and Hannibal and Woody Allen’s Irrational Man. There are shi-shi retail stores, trying to affect a certain sophistication, model homes for that lived-in look and, for that expensively-educated-in look, professional offices.
CHUCK ROBERTS: There’s no viable use for law books, except decorative, anymore. But someone rents a law office that has a bunch of empty shelves in it, they wanted something to fill it in, then they can buy law books from us by the foot really inexpensively.
[PACKING MACHINE SOUND]
BOB GARFIELD: And then there are individual homeowners, who wish to project a certain bulk sophistication. Roberts remembers one customer who was furnishing a new beach mansion in Delaware via her New York interior decorator, a man, of course, called Helmut. The owners were entertaining on a Thursday. Helmut wanted a stocked library by Monday, 200 feet of solid literature, rush. And, he is not alone.
BRADLEY STEPHENS: I think it’s a really useful service.
BOB GARFIELD: New York interior designer, Bradley Stephens,
BRADLEY STEPHENS: I think that a room doesn’t feel finished without books. It really does personalize a space.
BOB GARFIELD: Personalize, yes, but not necessarily by his clients, personally. It’s his job to plumb their tastes, values, aesthetics and psychology to get just the right effect.
BRADLEY STEPHENS: Even if they haven’t read them, maybe it's aspirational and maybe that’s okay. Even if they're props, they are still books.
BOB GARFIELD: The concept of one-stop shopping is hardly new, nor the idea of showcasing your personal scope and erudition via your library. Book spines can tell your guests just what kind of individual you are, or wish to be perceived as. Let’s face it, those Great Books of the Western World series didn’t originate in the insatiable demand for Aristophanes.
What Wonder Books pioneered is the system for recycling unwanted books and, of course, the novel metric. Hitherto, the accumulated literary output of man was not measured in linear feet - $5.99, by the way, for trade paperbacks, 350 bucks a foot for premium leather. I asked Chuck Roberts about tape measure economics.
BOB/QUESTION: Let’s say you get a copy of Catcher in the Rye and Night by Elie Wiesel and The Incredible Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera? These are very slender volumes, and that’s three books, and one James Patterson is, is twice as thick.
CHUCK ROBERTS: Well, you pretty much hit the nail on the head with, with those titles. The first three titles you said would probably never make it to Books by the Foot because those sell too well in the secondary market. Those would go to our stores or on the internet. And the James Patterson, he is so overpopulated in the secondary market because he’s so hugely successful that we probably get ten copies of all his bestsellers for every one that we could sell as a book to a reader online for 15 cents, in the store for a few dollars. So what are we going to do with the other nine out of ten James Patterson books that come in? We don’t want to pulp ‘em, so they’ll go to Books by the Foot.
BOB GARFIELD: An immortal, in other words, if not of literature, then of interior décor.
CHUCK ROBERTS: He’ll be on display in – on people’s shelves as a book-shaped object for a long time.
BOB GARFIELD: In a sorting area, an employee named Kelsey was putting together a custom order. I asked her about the oddest request she ever got.
KELSEY: I don’t know that I’ve had too many odd ones but we do get a lot of exotic colors, like clay and lemon yellow and lavender, things like that.
BOB GARFIELD: Lemon yellow, wait, like, to match the drapes? Whereupon, Chuck escorts me to a large room at the back of the warehouse, rows and rows, stacks and stacks arranged, not alphabetically or even by the Dewey Decimal System.
BOB/QUESION: (LAUGHS] Wait a second. I am in a room [LAUGHING] and here is the signage: White and cream, earth tones, red, green. [LAUGHS] Oh, I’m a big reader. Really? What do you like to read? Orange. Is there a Sher – [LAUGHS] is there a Sherwin Williams Prize for Literature?
CHUCK ROBERTS: Um, no [LAUGHS], I don’t know about that.
BOB GARFIELD: What about the Lego-ization of literature? Books have been used as building blocks for furniture, art, even actual buildings. They have decent R value for exterior wall insulation. And there’s always the energy sector. You know Fahrenheit 451. Those things totally burn!
I said the books, Montag!
[THUNDER CLAP SOUNDS]
That's good. That's what I like to see.
BOB GARFIELD: You know what? Never mind.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess and Jesse Brenneman. We had more help from Micah Loewinger, Emma Stelter and Isabel Cristo. And our show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Casey Holford.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.