When you’re buried in books

No room for cars
Bruce Emerton transformed the garage of his Cliff May home in Pomona into a library to hold part of his collection of 20,000 books.
(Perry C. Riddle / LAT)
Special to The Times

PEOPLE who fall in love with books usually do so early in life, long before they consider issues of interior design. At some point, though, the ability to live with cinderblock bookshelves ends, leaving bibliophiles with massive collections, nowhere to put them — and nowhere to turn for advice.

The homes that fill the pages of sleek design magazines have everything in them but books. Oh sure, here and there half a dozen volumes turn up, but never too many, and miraculously, they always match, their covers complementary shades of beige and tan that look perfect as they lean just-so on creamy shelves flanked by well-chosen objets d’art.

The collections of true book lovers — scholars, writers, editors, collectors or just insatiable readers — look nothing like this.

For one thing, the numbers are staggering. Doug Dutton, owner of Dutton’s Books, reportedly owns 15,000 volumes; the late Susan Sontag had 20,000. And the books come in all sizes, colors and conditions, some so pawed-over that hardcovers are limp and tattered and paperbacks frayed, scribbled-on and coffee-stained.

For the bibliophile, what to do with the books is life’s central decorating issue, an ongoing discourse, a debate, and often an outright décor war, between aesthetics, the practicalities of storage and the consuming mindlessness of passion.

The roots of that passion are simple. To these readers, books aren’t mere objects but possessions that carry intensely personal memories: where they were purchased, who the reader was while reading them, how they changed his or her life. They carry a weight of history.

The problem of how to manage this passion within the boundaries of the home goes beyond mere aesthetics.

No one really “decorates” with books — except, perhaps, those who don’t actually read them. In one episode of HGTV’s “You’re Home,” viewers were advised to use them as “risers to elevate accessories.” A Fallbrook-based business called Book Décor specializes in the sale of leather-bound books that “unlike drapes or carpeting appreciate in value and never wear out,” selling them by the foot in quantities of up to 250. Lest any client be tempted to open and read one, they’re printed in Danish.

But the appearance of their real books matters to many bibliophiles. Silver Lake resident Louise Steinman, an author and cultural programs director for the Los Angeles Library, favors walnut cases designed and built by her sculptor husband, Lloyd Hamrol.

Bruce Emerton, a Cal Poly Pomona librarian, has a collection of about 20,000 volumes, weighted toward works on the California desert and midcentury architecture. He took great care in transforming the double garage of his 1954 Cliff May house, in Pomona, to a library.

“I used original glass panels that I found from another house on the street for the back wall,” he says. “I wanted the garage to look as if it was part of the house, not just a room full of books. I sacrificed for that wall — if I hadn’t used glass, I could have fit 6,000 books there.”

Retired Cal State Northridge professor Harry Stone meticulously presents his extraordinary and valuable Dickens collection — 1,000 volumes that include first editions, signed copies, volumes from the author’s personal library and foreign language versions of his work — on plain wooden bookcases throughout his modest postwar ranch-style home in Brentwood. (He has several thousand non-Dickens books as well.)

Yet if the shelves themselves are pedestrian, they also hold art objects from Stone’s travels around the world — the ultimate look is what Book Décor can only dream of providing.

Devon Hartman, a principal at HartmanBaldwin Design/Build in Claremont, notes that in a city with five private colleges and two graduate universities, “there’s a perennial lack of linear shelf space.” He’s worked on a number of looks-conscious book-related remodel projects, including creating space-saving built-ins in the space behind a door or master bedroom wall, the creation of an immense basement library whose custom shelves extend to high windows and “a Tudor-style library that will feature panels of mahogany and curly maple, and a paneled ceiling with raised coffers.”

But equally or more often, a book lover’s chief ambition is less visual glory than containment — a pen to hold the 190-pound mastiff that you adore but know is capable of devouring you.

The story of Anthony Cima is the book lover’s nightmare: The 87-year-old stuffed 10,000 books into a one-room San Diego apartment, and when a 5.4-magnitude earthquake hit just off the coast of Oceanside in July 1986, he was buried beneath them and barely survived.

Containment is about practicality: Valuable volumes need protection from sunlight, whether curtains or polarized window film. Shelves made of softer woods may bow in the center if filled with hardcover volumes. Bookcases should have backs, especially if they’re going to be placed against outside walls, which can leak moisture and lead to mildew. And, as Cima discovered in earthquake country, they’d better be solidly anchored to the wall.

Economics also comes into play. Shelving thousands of books requires lots of bookcases, which can be as low as $40 or less for “birch effect foil finish” bottom-of-the-line IKEA, or a lot more.

“If you want to surround yourself in wood,” says Hartman, “the sky’s the limit.”

Beyond those considerations though, there really are no rules; design and organization are purely personal. But there are common sources of debate:

•  Is it acceptable to double-stack books to fit more in a small space? “Some people think so, but I’m totally opposed,” says Dana Polan, who teaches history of cinema at USC and lives with a wife and about 4,000 books in a Santa Monica apartment. “Every book has to be visible — even if it only cost 99 cents.”

•  How high can a bookcase go? Screenwriter Steven Frank, who lives in Laurel Canyon, has one that extends 14 feet. Although he’s successfully organized his approximately 1,700 books, “reaching the top shelves require getting the electrician’s ladder from the garage, then using my 4-year-old’s grabber toy.”

•  Is it OK to fill every inch of the house with books — even dining rooms and already-crowded halls? Silver Lake-based literary agent Betsy Amster, who with her sociologist husband Barry Glassner owns “who knows exactly how many — thousands” of books, says yes.

“They’re in every room but the bathroom. I wouldn’t mind having even more bookcases, but it’s a subject of intense negotiation. We recently added another one to the living room — Pottery Barn, only half height.”

•  When you marry or cohabit, do you merge collections, disposing of the duplicates? Sometimes, but not always. The act is fraught. If individual books hold memories, whose get kept and whose discarded? And if the relationship ends, who gets custody? (Putting one copy on the shelf and another in a box in the attic is one way to work it out.)

•  Should books always be kept on shelves or is accumulating a bedside stack acceptable? No, but pray for an understanding partner, because it happens anyway. (“I know I tend to create obstacle courses, but I have to have new books where I can see them,” says Amster.)

•  Should shelves contain art objects to offset the canyon-of-books look? Probably.

Amster says her office shelves also hold “a fabulously insane conglomeration of things, like an old ashtray from Bruno Pen and Pencil on East 45th Street in New York city, an amazing cigar box that says ‘Dixie-made factory throw-outs’ and a red leather-bound book called Clever Betsy, displayed facing out.”

•  And how do you keep thousands of volumes clean? “Dusting?” says Louise Steinman. “That’s not a fair question. Let’s not think about it.”

•  Finally, of course, there’s the issue of why so many books at all. Is it really necessary to keep shelves full of 30-plus-years-old copies of “Siddhartha” or “Ionesco and Genet: Playwrights of Silence”? The answer to that though, is probably yes. Books may seem to have less and less social effect, superseded as they are by computers and TV, even pushed out of architecture: While older Craftsman, Tudor and Spanish homes usually have built-in bookshelves that are central to their design, the nook-less, shelf-less great rooms of today’s McMansions are made only for “media.” But bibliophiles still, and always will, remain intensely attached to them.

“I love the way they feel and smell,” Bruce Emerton says. “Having them around me makes me feel good.” Book lovers endlessly touch, fondle, gaze at and re-read their collections, even if it’s just dipping in for a paragraph or two, for the memories. Getting rid of a book is as unthinkable as chucking out a child. “My books have been around me my whole life,” says Steinman.

Besides, the truth is, culling often turns out to be counterproductive. Dana Polan says he pared about 10,000 books from his library when he married and moved to Santa Monica, “but I missed some afterwards, and some I bought again. Book people who get rid of books usually just end up buying a whole new series.”

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