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: So to end the 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 a team of biblio-triage artists who make a living prolonging the shelf-life of books that have long outgrown their readers. Bob Garfield investigates.
[sound of packing machine]
BOB: In a former post-office sorting center in Frederick, Md., this is the sound of rescue.
[sound of packing machine]
BOB: 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, down-sizing or uncluttering or otherwise divesting their libraries. Chuck Roberts, founder and president of Wonder Books, shows me cartons upon cartons of the abandoned..
ROBERTS: So what you’re looking at is boxes of what we call raw books. These books need to be sorted or triaged according to a pretty complex formula that’s evolved here the past 15 years since we’ve been on the internet.
[triage sound. books clomping into bins]
ROBERTS: Trying to maximize the value of each book , try to get it to the right place to turn it into a nickel, a dime, a dollar. [2:39] we have the retail stores, we sell books on the internet through about 15 different selling platforms…[2:45][2:47] we sell bulk books to people who send them overseas
BOB: 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-book stores.
ROBERTS I would notice people buying books and it turned out that they were interior decorators buying books for clients. By look or by subject…and they would buy them from the stores, then I said let’s work around that and let you get them less expensively than pulling them off the shelves and buy ‘em in bulk.
BOB: Bulk...words. Now, before you get all huffy about the commodification of culture, Roberts wants you to know his motives aren’t entirely pecuniary.
ROBERTS: these are books that we can't sell to readers or collectors. and if we can't do something with them we get filled up and at some point and they have to go to bad places.
BOB: they have to go to the farm?
ROBERTS: Your books are going to the farm, so does it bother you when these things get pulped? yeah I can't stand to destroy a viable book.
BOB: now, you understand that they’re paper and that they don’t have feelings?
ROBERTS: Well, I have feelings and also it’s financial, too. if I can get ‘em for a nickel and sell em for a dime at this kind of volume, you’re talking about a little money there.
BOB: But who, exactly, is he nickel and diming? Well, there are 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.
ROBERTS: there’s no viable use for law books, except for decorative. Everybody’s gone to digital. But someone rents a law office and has shelves to fill in, then they can buy law books from us by the foot really inexpensively.
BOB: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.
STEPHENS: I think it’ a really useful service.
BOB: New York interior designer Bradley Stephens,
STEPHENS: I think a room doesn’t look finished w/o books. [11:43] It really does personalize a space……
BOB: Personalize, yes, although, not necessarily by his clients personally. It’s his job to plumb their tastes, values, aesthetics and psychology to get just the right effect.
STEPHENS: Even if they haven’t read them….maybe it's aspirational? And maybe that’s OK. Even if they're props, they’re still books.
BOB: 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 metric. Hitherto, the accumulated literary output of man was not measured in linear feet. $5.99 for trade paperbacks. 350 bucks a foot for premium leather. I asked Chuck Roberts about tape-measure economics.
BOB: let’s say you get a copy of catcher in the rye, night, by elie wiesel and the incredible lightness of being by milan Kundera. These are very slender volumes. And one james Patterson is twice as thick.
ROBERTS: you pretty much hit the nail o n the head. Those first three titles you mentioned would probably never make it to books by the foot. ….those would go to our stores or the internet. and the james Patterson. He is so overpopulated in the secondary market because he is so hugely successful that we probably get 10 copies of his bestsellers for every one that we could sell as a book to a reader online for 15 cents or in a store for a few dollars. So what are we going to do with the other james Patterson books that come in? we don’t wanna pulp em. So they go to books by the foot
BOB: An immortal, in other words -- if not of literature, then of interior décor
ROBERTS He’ll be on display on people’s shelves as a book-shaped object for a long time.”
BOB: In a sorting area, an employee named Kelsey was putting together a custom order. I asked her what the oddest request she ever got might be.
KELSEY: I don’t know that I’ve gotten any odd ones, but we get a lot of orders for exotic colors, like clay or lavender, lemon yellow things like that.
BOB: Lemon yellow-- l ike, 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 by the Dewey Decimal System.
BOB: (laughing) wait a second… I am in a room and here are..here’s the signage: white and cream, earth tones, red, green (laughter) There's a market for books by color.
ROBERTS: Yeah, the way things have evolved.
BOB: Oh I’m a big reader. Are you really? What do you like to read? Orange. Is there a Sherwin Williams prize for literature?
BOB: And they say don’t judge a book by its cover.
But my question is, if you’re looking for downstream markets, why stop at color-coordination? 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
You know what? Never mind.
[music up and under]
BOB: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Kimmie Regler, Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman and Mythili Rao. We had more help from David Conrad and Dasha Lisitsina. And our show was edited by…Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Casey Holford.
BROOKE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for news. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB: And I’m Bob Garfield.