TOO MANY BOOKS?

TOO MANY BOOKS?

To paraphrase the Duchess of Windsor (the former Wallace Simpson for whom King Edward VIII abdicated the throne in
1936) “you can’t be too rich or too poor….or have too many cookbooks”*

*Amongst my collection of favorite books are those about monarchs of Great Britain—and their wives/husbands or children.

I never imagined that the thought (having too many books) ever crossed my mind – until recently when I started finding it more difficult to find enough shelf space for my books.

As a child, I didn’t have any books to call my own. (I’d often read the same library books over and over again).

My very first book was a copy of Little Women that my mother gave to me one Christmas. I read and re-read little women until I could recite whole pages by heart. I’d give my book to one of my two best girlfriends and then when we had a squabble, I’d ask for it back. It went back and forth a few times.

Then one Christmas, my brother Jim gave me five brand-spanking new Nancy Drew books. I was hooked – not just hooked on Nancy Drew, which I was, but also the idea of having books of my own began to take place in a fertile corner of my mind.

I was already making trips downtown (Cincinnati) by myself – whether to pay off my mother’s coat that was in layaway at Lerner’s, or to turn in the blue Wilson labels from evaporated milk for which you could get a towel or a pot holder.

My mother made batches of formula in glass bottles with evaporated milk for whoever was the baby at the time. I have to wonder, though – she breast fed the baby—was the one who wasn’t the youngest anymore weaned onto bottles? This muddles my mind a bit—Biff was three years younger than me, and Bill was three years younger than Biff.

Bill remained the baby until our brother Scott was born when Bill was about twelve years old. Scott and my sister Susie were almost like a second family. I was seventeen when Scott was born—and the neighbors thought he was my baby, because I was the one waking him up and down the street in his stroller. I was twenty and married when Susie came along.

I need to back track, though, because I was the middle child, and my two younger brothers, Biff (whose name is actually George Calvin after two of our uncles who served during World War II) and Bill were often my responsibility. I looked after them all the time (and even took them with me on dates, when my current BF was taking me to a drive in movie), and began taking them with me downtown on the bus in December, to do our Christmas shopping. I have written about those trips downtown, growing up in Cincinnati, before on my blog so I won’t repeat all of that now. My point, really, is that I began going downtown—often by myself—and during those excursions I discovered books—books for sale in dusty dark thrift shops and (be still my heart!)—a huge used book store housing four stories of books. I bought a lot of those books—one at a time, seldom having any money to call my own—for about twenty-five cents each. I discovered some old editions of Nancy Drew, and a few other series similar to Nancy Drew.

Now I needed a bookcase – I think my mother must have given a bookcase to me one Christmas—and I took it with me when Jim (Smith, not to be confused with my brother Jim Schmidt!) & I got married but I think that bookcase must have been left behind when Jim & I moved to California. Jim had no use for my books OR the collection of 45s that I had accumulated and that he sailed over the back yard of his mother’s house

(How could I have married a man who didn’t like to read AND had no interest in my collection of 45s records? From my viewpoint fifty-something years later, it is almost too difficult to fathom. Was it love? I don’t think so—the night before the wedding, I knew I was making a mistake; I just didn’t know any way to get out of it. I was unhappy with the way my mother was treating me after I finally got a job (Western-Southern Life Insurance in downtown Cincinnati) – I had been taking care of my brothers all along, and babysat my baby brother from the time he was born until I got married—neighbors on Mulberry Street thought Scott was MY baby and that my brother Jim, then in the Air Force—was my husband. Susie set them all straight when she became old enough to play with little girls her age on our street. My mother decreed that I had to start paying room and board. I was so upset about that, I told Jim Smith, who said “well, we could get married”. And so we did. For all the wrong reasons. And, in retrospect, I don’t think he really loved me, either. Months of counseling prior to divorce revealed that he had been cheating on me throughout our marriage. That was the final blow, the realization that he had never been true to me and was unlikely to change.

My little white bookcase went with me to the house on Biegler Street where we lived downstairs from my husband’s mother. We didn’t take it with us to California – neither that or a kitchen cupboard that we bought—and what I wished for years I had somehow managed to keep. As far as I know, Jim’s sister still has those things.

We drove to California in 1961 as a lark—and rented a furnished duplex next door to Jim’s best friend Marvin who had taken his wife and children to California the year before. Michael was a little over a year old and I would take him in his stroller up Hollywood Way to a bookstore on Magnolia where I began buying books as cheap as possible, mostly paperbacks. I would read anything I could lay my hands on.

In 1962 we moved to an apartment on Sarah Street and I would walk Michael in his stroller up to a used bookstore on Lankershim Blvd—paperbacks ten cents each! Then I found a job at Household Finance in Hollywood and my free time was taken up just getting to and from work on buses; I did some exploring along Hollywood Boulevard but I don’t remember finding any thrift stores (or if I did, I’ve forgotten) – much of 1962 going into 1963 has been forgotten. I had a serious miscarriage in 1962 that landed me in the hospital for a few days.

What I remember is being hurried to the hospital by my husband, to a Seventh Day Adventist hospital because I had gone there when I suspected I was pregnant and it was affirmed. This was my second miscarriage – my first was in 1959 when we were still living in Cincinnati. This time I was bleeding heavily as we reached the hospital in Glendale. The next morning the doctor on call performed a D&C—when I miscarried, I’d lose everything except the fetus.

Well, it couldn’t have been too much longer after that we
moved into a wonderful large apartment on Sarah Street in North Hollywood. The “tenants” in the other downstairs apartment were actually the owners whose house was being remodeled; the parents had three adorable little girls who all, in turn, adored Michael and lavished attention on him. We were also invited to swim in their pool.

I can’t remember having many books much less a bookcase during the period of time that we lived there. When I became pregnant again, I flew back to Cincinnati with Michael in March of 1963 (I wanted my own obstetrician). We gave away the various items we had accumulated in a few years.

In Cincinnati, I returned to my old job, thankfully, and worked until two weeks before Steven’s birth. In December, 1963, we drove back to California—Jim couldn’t (or wouldn’t) find a job and we were mostly penniless when, after Steve’s birth, I developed a blood clot in my right leg and was bedridden for six weeks; one week I had $5 for baby food; we went to my mother’s where she gave us some meat out of her freezer; then we went to my sister Becky’s and she gave us half of everything in her pantry.

Shades of Scarlett O’Hara! I cried all the way home and swore we would never go without groceries again. I said I wanted to go back to California – at least there Jim was always able to find a job. (*mind you, there was no such thing as welfare or food stamps in 1963).

I left my collection of books with my mother, who began sending them to me a few at a time. In 1965, when my parents came to visit us, my mother packed a suitcase with the rest of my books.

But it was also in 1965 that I began collecting cookbooks—I have written about that before on my blog so wont repeat all of it here. I had also become acquainted with Connie, who babysat for us for some months while both Jim & I got jobs at Weber Aircraft.

Connie was a kindred spirit – one time we found an ad for a collection of presidential and white House books, for $100. We split the cost and sight unseen bought all of those books which formed the nucleus of my collection of Presidents/White House books. We went through the books one at a time dividing them up.

I was keenly interested in anything about the assassination of JFK and many books were published on the subject. (After Connie died in 1999, her daughter Dawn gave me large bags full of Connie’s books that her children didn’t want). And I probably bought over a hundred cookbooks forming the nucleus of THAT collection, also in 1965.

When we were preparing to move to Florida in 1979, I donated carloads of children’s books for my sons’ school and when we were preparing to move back to California, I gave boxes full of cookbooks to a new friend whose daughter wanted to start a collection of cookbooks of her own. I packed up and mailed 50 boxes of cookbooks back to California—to Connie’s house, in fact—so I had a pretty good guess how many pounds of cookbooks and other favorite books I had in 1982 when we returned to California.

So, upon reflection—I think the bulk of my cookbook collection was acquired after I moved to a little house in Van Nuys, following my breakup with Jim living there for a few years before moving back into the Arleta house (where we had lived from 1974-79, before moving to Florida). The Arleta house was large and was accompanied by a guest house that Bob (who came into my life in 1986) converted into a guest room/office for him.

And for nineteen years we were off and running – collecting books—not just cookbooks—and when we ran out of shelf space, we’d go out and buy more bookcases.

When I bought a house in 2008, we went from roughly 3000 square feet of space—to roughly 1500 square feet. I gave away SUV-loads full of books to the Burbank library for their Friends of the Library Sales; I gave a lot of other books away—and even so, filled over 600 boxes with books that Kelly carted to the Antelope Valley one weekend at a time, and stored in a rental storage unit. My books were in storage for a few months, then my son and daughter in law moved all the boxes to my garage. I was without garage space for a year.

Then in 2010, Bob converted half of the garage into a ….Library, of course! My collection of fiction and presidents/white house/first ladies books were all still in boxes…as quickly as Bob put up some shelves, I was unpacking boxes. The beauty of being able to open exactly what I wanted opened is that I had numbered all of the boxes. I had also written on the boxes what was inside each box. Everything was also written down in a little steno notebook that was my moving bible.

Even so, I found myself donating a lot of books to the Lancaster Library for their Friends of the Lancaster Library sales…there was this dim realization that I was never going to read a lot of those books again—and after Bob passed away in 2011, I began giving away some of his favorite authors’ novels. I also gave away his collection of books by or about Mark Twain to a friend who I knew would appreciate them.

It saddens me to have come to this realization—I have too many books. Bob’s room has bookcases on either side of the bed—just enough space to get in and out—one side contains all my foreign cookbooks in one bookcase and all of my canning/preserving cookbooks in another bookcase, while the other side has all of my regional cookbooks – one half contains books east of the Mississippi and the other side is west of the Mississippi; my favorite books of Americana cookbooks are in one extra bookcase along that wall.

(One winter, when we were still living in Arleta, I spent six weeks separating east from west. These are cookbooks published by various church or club groups as fundraisers). We had also gone to a place in Van Nuys where you could buy unfinished bookcases and do the finishing yourselves—we’d buy a couple of those ceiling to floor bookcases at a time.

What was pretty great about my relationship with Bob is that he loved books as much as I – the difference between us is that he would start a book and not do another thing until he finished it—while I always had my priorities—in addition to working full time, there were always other chores to do.

My bedroom contains all of my California cookbooks, the bulk of my Americana cookbooks and my Presidential/White House cookbooks. A third bedroom contains books by favorite cookbook authors while in the living room I have all of my Christmas cookbooks, a Gooseberry Patch cookbook collection, a collection of celebrity cookbooks as well as dessert cookbooks. A collection of NON cookbooks –mostly books about the history of food—fill five smallish bookcases in the family room where my computer is located. These are most of my reference books.

So, by the end of 2010, I had a garage library – A to L along one wall and M to Z along another; I also have a smallish collection of children’s books that I keep in a bookcase near the door; included are any books I know will be required reading for my grandchildren or my sister Susie’s kids.

But now I find…I need to do more donating of books I know I will not read (any of Bob’s authors—except Teddy Roosevelt; I will keep those in my Presidential collection. I’ve run out of bookshelf space.

All of which begs the question – can you have too many books? Sadly, the answer to this is yes – if you don’t have enough bookshelves to house all of your books. Books are meant to be read and displayed on bookshelves.

How many cookbooks do I have now? I have no idea. I don’t know of anyone with enough patience to count all of them.

–Sandra Lee Smith

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7 responses to “TOO MANY BOOKS?

  1. My Mom was an avid cookbook collector, too! I helped her sort and organize them much like you did. She had 1,481 when she died last January. A good many were passed down to her from members of her family. She became the family caretaker for all antiques, cookbooks, and any treasured items. It is all mine now, efforts to share with relatives have been unsuccessful. No one wants the ‘old stuff’. They tell me they can find recipes online. It makes me very sad. I love your blog.

  2. Hello Jane–thank you for writing. It saddens me, too, when no one wants old things–on the other hand, its also how I have been able to collect recipe boxes (which I didn’t write about in this post, but am pretty sure I have written about them on this blog) – I go for recipe boxes that contain someone’s recipes/clippings–whatever. Filled boxes are harder to find because antique dealers dump the contents, thinking no one will be interested in them. Some dealers have caught on. And a few times I was able to receive a filled recipe box when a friend’s mother died; most of my friends know I collect the boxes. I wish I could have known your mother; she sounds like my kind of person! – regards, Sandy

  3. As you know, I love antique cookbooks and recipe booklets (and cookbooks in some other categories too). Just today, I felt like I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, partly because of the teetering piles that surround me as I sit in this chair and also because I espied a beautiful leather-bound medical book from the 1840s (with recipes) just sitting there. I was astonished! I just left such a beautiful sitting there and never logged it in or shelved it? That is really bad! I tell myself to just log in the essentials and save going through the books for later. Such resolutions don’t last long though! For example, I spent the hours that I had for such things logging in one sweet little Nepali (that seems to be the word, based on its use in the book) cookbook.

    Plus, I am out of space on my shelves, and I really need to shelve more books. I guess I will get rid of the classics that occupy one bookcase in my spare bedroom. I am thinking I may do the deed this week, then move my food history books onto that bookshelf, not that they all will fit. That is so my antique cookbooks can expand onto the vacated shelves.

    I may also get rid of books that I categorize as “food writing” and most of my mysteries, including those that include recipes. This is all a stop-gap measure, because I really need to start getting rid of categories that don’t interest me as much as others.

    Yeah, yeah, I owe you. BUT I’d better do something that alleviates that “on the verge…” feeling.

  4. Finally able to get into my own blog, Jean. While I am not particularly interested in food writing such as mysteries with recipes–I AM very interested in food history & feel I have a good collection on this topic. let me know if you are interested in selling any of the food history books! Just would need a list to make sure I don’t already have them. (Its probably a very good thing we are not in the same city together).

    • I am keeping the food history books, which I also really love. Getting rid of some other categories. First, books that are not related to cookery.

  5. can’t fault you for that – the food history would be the last of mine to part with too.

    • Well, the antique books and booklets and those. And then… oh, the pain!

      I did manage to log in a few more cookbooks, but then I diverted my attention to cooking.

      BTW, do you have “Through the Kitchen Door: A cook’s tour…” by Grace and Beverly Smith and Charles Morrow? I had to order a decent copy of that because, as I was looking through my not-very-nice copy, I decided it demanded to be savored.

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