Photo: Brenda Clarke

Wander through your house and look at the objects you’ve accumulated during the course of a richly lived life. The art on your walls. Your crowded book shelf. Your collection of presidential bobble-heads. Even the clothes in your closet. What you own is an expression of who you are. Like you, it’s perfectly unique.

 

Now imagine that everything has a price tag — every book, every chair, every salad spinner. Your home is packed with strangers, pawing through your cherished possessions.

“Have you ever seen an uglier pair of shoes? And what about this awful hat?”

“Check out this tacky photo frame. And that hideous mirror! The babe who lived here got more than one visit from the Bad Taste Fairy.”

Or perhaps they’re saying, “Look at this beautiful vase! What exquisite taste she had. It’s a shame she’s gone.”

When you head off to the Sweet Hereafter, your stuff stays behind.

You’d like to think your children will squabble over who gets your cherished collection of Latvian soup tureens or Robert Parker first editions. And maybe each child will claim a beloved object or two. But then they’ll hold an estate sale. A team of pros will come to your house, slap a price tag on everything, open the doors to the public and turn your worldly goods into cold hard cash.

When I was little, my mom loved estate sales. She and I would be waiting on a different front porch every Saturday morning to be first in line when the door opened. When it did, we’d find ourselves in what looked at first glance like an ordinary home — except that every single thing in it, from the piano bench to the family photo album to the chipped candy dish, had a price tag.

Mom would give me a dollar to spend. While she looked at Oriental rugs and fine furniture, I went for the board games and children’s books. I first discovered many of my favorite books on other people’s shelves. I still remember taking a worn copy of Ballet Shoes from a shelf in a dark, paneled library. I didn’t think about that book’s owner. I didn’t wonder who she was or what that book meant to her. I recognized a good read and paid my dime. Now it would live on my book shelf. In fact, it still does.

These days I work in a busy suburban library, where I’m in charge of the material our patrons donate to us. When somebody dies, their adult children box up their books and bring them in. I never know what I’ll find when I open the cartons. A biography of Dorothy Parker. A history of falconry. A Faulkner first edition. Once again, I’m treasure-hunting through other people’s possessions. It’s easy to get a sense of the person behind each collection. This man loved vintage cars. This woman was crazy about gardening. This man had a strong interest in both butterflies and the Crimean War. This woman hoped to use positive thoughts to cure her cancer. (I hope she did. But the fact that her library is now in my hands suggests otherwise.)

You don’t want to think about your beloved books being boxed up and handed to strangers. But it could be worse. One of my neighbors, a single man in his seventies, collected poetry. A week after he died unexpectedly, there was a dumpster on his front lawn and two men were busy tossing poetry books in from an upstairs window.

Mixed in with the books the library receives about understanding classical music or choosing the right puppy is the smut. Badly written books with characters who frolic with a new partner on each page. Sexually explicit comics. Homoerotic photography collections. Victorian erotica reprints. Not to mention a staggering variety of “how to” manuals. That fellow gathering information about butterflies? He was also gathering information about pleasing his partner. Luckily for folks like him, librarians are discrete. When you give us Dad’s library, you can rest assured that we won’t phone you the next day to say, “We can use everything but your father’s profusely annotated copy of the Kama Sutra, although we did find his marginal notations quite intriguing.”

What to do with the sex books? We can’t add them to our collection and we certainly can‘t put them out for sale to the public. But a librarian hates to throw out a book. So I’ve amassed my own collection of the smut our patrons have gifted us with through the years. At our library’s “in service” days, I’ve shared recent acquisitions with my colleagues and we’ve all enjoyed a good laugh.

The last thing our patrons imagined was that one day their porn stash would entertain a room of librarians. But that’s how it goes when you collect something. It’s yours right now. But not forever. So cherish and enjoy each thing you have. But know that every object you love has a life of its own. You never know where it might end up.

Of course, there are worse things than giving a hard-working librarian a good laugh.

Join the conversation

  • roz warren August 18, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Guy. Grandma’s porn — there’s a good essay topic.

    Reply
  • Guy Hogan August 18, 2012 at 10:35 am

    Very interesting. I would be interested in the smut that dear, sweet old grandma collected.

    Reply