Friday, March 24, 2006

Booked Solid
Some Readers' Cherished Collections Have Nowhere to Grow

By Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 23, 2006; H01

Law librarian Rick Ramponi's collection of 3,000 regional cookbooks --including "Talk About Good" from the Lafayette, La., Junior League and "Shalom on the Range," which celebrates southwestern Jewish cuisine -- was manageable while he lived in a large house in Kalorama.

But when he moved to a one-bedroom Dupont Circle apartment with a partner who collects large art and architecture books, Ramponi had to exile those cherished culinary texts to a pair of rented storage units several blocks away.

Since 2002, he has spent more than $5,000 to keep them there, which "may be more than they are all worth," he concedes. "But there is a sentimental attachment and I associate them with places I've been, people I know."

Accountant Jennifer Kimball, who is studying for a master's degree in English, and policy analyst Matt Cail, who has a pair of master's degrees, call themselves "huge bibliophiles." Thus their chief requirement when condo shopping two years ago was enough wall space for shelves to hold their books. Already they have run out of space in their Alexandria flat. "Next year we will start looking for a house to buy that has room for children," she says. And books.

Then there is the Georgetown widow who requests anonymity to keep her literary "addiction" secret. She admits she once seriously considered buying and moving into the house next door, leaving her mushrooming book collection at the old address. Ultimately she could not justify carrying two mortgages, even though her own living space has been reduced to narrow paths winding past groaning shelves and grocery sacks filled with secondhand books.

"You think if you keep buying books you will never die until you've read them all," she says. "Of course, that's absurd."

Books, it turns out, inflame a particular kind of passion. They inform, they amuse, they provoke. They keep us company and lull us to sleep. They give manifest evidence of our intellect. They show off our interests and our values. And when we've run out of places to put them, they prove extremely difficult to part with.

Washington, with its affluent and educated populace, is a natural habitat for bibliomaniacs, defined by the late British author Sir Hugh Walpole as those "to whom books are like bottles of whiskey to the inebriate, to whom anything that is between covers has a sort of intoxicating savour."

The Association of American Publishers reports nationwide sales of nearly 969 million new books in 2004, the most recent available figure from 20 major U.S. publishers. The Washington area ranked fourth last year in sales, after New York, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay/Silicon Valley axis, according to Nielsen BookScan, a retail book sales monitoring service.

More than 100 million used books also change hands each year, reports the American Booksellers Association. Many are scavenged from secondhand bookstores, thrift shops or estate sales, where paperbacks can be found for a dollar or less and hardcovers for as little as $2. Voracious readers also hit sales at libraries and schools, where $5 or $10 can often buy a shopping bag stuffed with books.

"There is a feeling that words written on a page have some kind of power," says Carla Cohen, co-owner of Politics and Prose bookstore in the District, whose own Northwest Washington home is filled with books she cannot bear to part with. "Books talk to us. They are like friends. Certainly some of my books are," says Cohen. "They actually do more than evoke the story. They evoke the place I read it -- Maine, college, a trip. They become almost a memento of the trip."

The effort to contain a growing collection can last decades. Nearly a half-century ago, Daniel Davidson -- lawyer, former diplomat and book reviewer (sometimes for The Washington Post) -- paid $150 for five custom bookcases, including one with a built-in bar. They've survived several moves with him, and now anchor the den of the Northwest Washington home he shares with his writer wife, Susan Davidson.

"The serious stuff, books I've reviewed," crowd a quartet of nine-shelf, 10-foot-high bookcases in the living room. "I figure that after we go, it's my daughter's problem. I told her to throw out everything but the books autographed by [former secretary of state] Dean Acheson."

Professional organizer Kim Oser of Put It Away! in Gaithersburg says it can be difficult to persuade clients to jettison the literary surplus. "People treat books as trophies. When they finish a book, they have to put it up to show 'I read that.' "

Her tough-love solution is simple: "Books that you keep are childhood books, historical books, classics. There are two options with the other books: If it's so good that you would tell friends to read it, you pass it along. If it's so awful, you donate it."

Avid readers consider such advice heresy, preferring instead to grapple with storage, from basic bricks-and-board shelving to exquisite, and exquisitely expensive, custom cabinetry. They have discovered that books can be tucked under the stairs, over doorways, into headboards, atop the refrigerator and inside kitchen cabinets. The cliched decorator's trick of stacking large, glossy art books on their sides can give new life to occasional tables. Indeed, several uniform, knee-high piles of books on the floor can become a table when topped by a piece of glass.

The ultimate luxury, of course, is a personal library. To Washington designer John Peters Irelan, a traditional library boasts wood-paneled walls, with bookcases of various widths and depths topped by pediments, leaving a bit of wall exposed below the crown molding. A contemporary library contains just floor-to-ceiling shelves to create "a tapestry of books" needing no further embellishment.

One Irelan client offered a tip to keep dust off shelves: Make them no deeper than the books themselves. Eight inches works for most hardbacks; a foot will do for art books.

For those who have yet to unbox their favorites, Marco Fogg, the hero of Paul Auster's novel "Moon Palace," has a solution: "Imaginary furniture" for his apartment made from dozens of cartons filled with 1,000 books once owned by his late uncle.

"One set of 16 served as the support for my mattress, another set of 12 became a table, others of seven became chairs, another of two became a bed stand, and so on," Fogg mused. "Imagine the pleasure of sitting down to a meal with the entire Renaissance lurking below your food."

Booked Solid

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