Painful but Necessary: Culling Books, Etc.

I’ve been somewhat cagey about the purpose for my trip back to the States. Yes, it was about helping my parents move, but the backstory to that is that they’re divorcing after 44 years of marriage and so their home of 13 years, one of three family homes I’ve known, is being sold. It was pretty overwhelming to see all the stacks of stuff in the garage. I was reminded of these jolting lines from Nausheen Eusuf’s lush poem about her late parents’ house, “Musée des Beaux Morts”: “Well, there you have it, folks, the crap / one collects over a lifetime.”

 

On the 7th I moved my mom into her new retirement community, and in my two brief spells back at the house I was busy dealing with the many, many boxes I’ve stored there for years. In the weeks leading up to my trip I’d looked into shipping everything back across the ocean, but the cost would have been in the thousands of dollars and just wasn’t worth it. Although my dad is renting a storage unit, so I’m able to leave a fair bit behind with him, I knew that a lot still had to go. Even (or maybe especially) books.

Had I had more time at my disposal, I might have looked into eBay and other ways to maximize profits, but with just a few weeks and limited time in the house itself, I had to go for the quickest and easiest options. I’m a pretty sentimental person, but I tried to approach the process rationally to minimize my emotional overload. I spent about 24 hours going through all of my boxes of books, plus the hundreds of books and DVDs my parents had set aside for sale, and figuring out the best way to dispose of everything. Maybe these steps will help you prepare for a future move.

The Great Book Sort-Out in progress.

When culling books, I asked myself:

  • Do I have duplicate copies? This was often the case for works by Dickens, Eliot and Hardy. I kept the most readable copy and put the others aside for sale.
  • Have I read it and rated it 3 stars or below? I don’t need to keep the Ayn Rand paperback just to prove to myself that I got through all 1000+ pages. If I’m not going to reread Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, better to put it in the local Little Free Library so someone else can enjoy it for the first time.
  • Can I see myself referring to this again? My college philosophy textbook had good explanations and examples, but I can access pithy statements of philosophers’ beliefs on the Internet instead. I’d like to keep up conversational French, sure, but I doubt I’ll ever open up a handbook of unusual verb conjugations.
  • Am I really going to read this? I used to amass classics with the best intention of inhaling them and becoming some mythically well-read person, but many have hung around for up to two decades without making it onto my reading stack. So it was farewell to everything by Joseph Fielding and Sinclair Lewis; to obscure titles by D.H. Lawrence and Anthony Trollope; and to impossible dreams like Don Quixote. If I have a change of heart in the future, these are the kinds of books I can find in a university library or download from Project Gutenberg.

 

My first port of call for reselling books was Bookscouter.com (the closest equivalents in the UK are WeBuyBooks and Ziffit). This is an American site that compares buyback offers from 30 secondhand booksellers. There’s a minimum number of books / minimum value you have to meet before you can complete a trade-in. You print off a free shipping label and then drop off the box at your nearest UPS depot or arrange for a free USPS pickup. I ended up sending boxes to Powell’s Books, TextbookRush and Sellbackyourbook and making nearly a dollar per book. Powell’s bought about 18 of my paperback fiction titles, while the other two sites took a bizarre selection of around 30 books each.

Some books that were in rather poor condition or laughably outdated got shunted directly into piles for the Little Free Library or a Salvation Army donation. Many of my mom’s older Christian living books and my dad’s diet and fitness books I sorted into categories to be sold by the box in an online auction after the house sells.

The final set of books awaiting sale.

All this still left about 18 boxes worth of rejects. For the non-antiquarian material I first tried 2nd & Charles, a new and secondhand bookstore chain that offers cash or store credit on select books. I planned to take the rest, including the antiquarian stuff, to an Abebooks seller in my mom’s new town, but I never managed to connect with him. So, the remaining boxes went to Wonder Book and Video, a multi-branch store I worked for during my final year of college. The great thing about them (though maybe not so great when you work there and have to sort through boxes full of dross) is that they accept absolutely everything when they make a cash offer. Although I felt silly selling back lots of literary titles I bought there over the years, at a massive loss, it was certainly an efficient way of offloading unwanted books.

 

As to everything else…

  • I sent off 42.5 pounds (19.3 kilograms) of electronic waste to GreenDisk for recycling. That’s 75 VHS tapes, 63 CDs, 38 cassette tapes, 11 DVDs, five floppy disks, two dead cables, and one dead cell phone I saved from landfill, even if I did have to pay for the privilege.
  • I donated all but a few of my jigsaw puzzles to my mom’s retirement community.
  • I gave my mom my remaining framed artworks to display at her new place.
  • I gave some children’s books, stuffed animals, games and craft supplies away to my nieces and nephews or friends’ kids.
  • I let my step-nephew (if that’s a word) take whatever he wanted from my coin collection, and then sold that and most of my stamp collection back to a coin store.
  • Most of my other collections – miniature tea sets, unicorn figurines, classic film memorabilia – all went onto the auction pile.
  • My remaining furniture, a gorgeous rolltop desk plus a few bookcases, will also be part of the auction.
  • You can tell I was in a mood to scale back: I finally agreed to throw out two pairs of worn-out shoes with holes in them, long after my mother had started nagging me about them.

 

Mementos and schoolwork have been the most difficult items for me to decide what to do with. Ultimately, I ran out of time and had to store most of the boxes as they were. But with the few that I did start to go through I tried to get in a habit of appreciating, photographing and then disposing. So I kept a handful of favorite essays and drawings, but threw out my retainers, recycled the science fair projects, and put the hand-knit baby clothes on the auction pile. (My mom kept the craziest things, like 12 inches of my hair from a major haircut I had in seventh grade – this I threw out at the edge of the woods for something to nest with.)

 

 

All this work and somehow I was still left with 29 smallish boxes to store with my dad’s stuff. Fourteen of these are full of books, with another four boxes of books stored in my mom’s spare room closet to select reading material from on future visits. So to an extent I’ve just put off the really hard work of culling until some years down the road – unless we ever move to the States, of course, in which case the intense downsizing would start over here.

At any rate, in the end it’s all just stuff. What I’m really mourning, I know, is not what I had to get rid of, or even the house, but the end of our happy family life there. I didn’t know how to say goodbye to that, or to my hometown. I’ve got the photos and the memories, and those will have to suffice.

 

Have you had to face a mountain of stuff recently? What are your strategies for getting rid of books and everything else?

Advertisements

50 thoughts on “Painful but Necessary: Culling Books, Etc.

    1. I try not to ascribe particular value to my reading copies of books, so if it ever came to it I could take an inventory of everything I have over there and buy everything again secondhand here for a fraction of what I was quoted in overseas relocation fees.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. A difficult trip for you, both physically and emotionally. When I emigrated from Rhodesia at the end of the 70s I also had to be ruthless and its not easy! But in the end it is all “just stuff”. Its the memories that are precious.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve taken advantage of being able to live a “double life” with possessions on both sides of the Atlantic, but I know it can’t last forever. I can see another, more ruthless cull in my future.

      Like

  2. I’m so sorry to hear this, Rebecca. I had to do the same thing in 2015 when my parents divorced and sold our family home. A really painful experience, and I’ve found it difficult to talk about this kind of loss (of a place) – there doesn’t seem to be much public discussion of it.

    One strategy I used re. stuff was to take photos of the things I wasn’t able to keep e.g. beloved childhood toys and clothing. So I now have a file of photos of random Barbies, Playmobil scenery, my elf costume from first grade, etc…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, so you know exactly what I’m talking about! It wasn’t my childhood home, and I only lived there full-time for less than a year, but it was the place my husband and I kept coming back to on all our USA visits, and the site of many memorable occasions, like wedding receptions for my sister and me.

      I started that process of photographing the stuff I couldn’t keep, like baby clothes, favorite kids’ books and school science projects, but in the end I just ran out of time. I’ll try to keep a good photo archive to add to later on. I’m lucky that my dad offered to store the boxes for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a beautiful, wonderful, touching blog. A goodbye to lots of things, seen and unseen. I believe God will give back to you, and me, even better than before.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m sorry to hear about your parents’ divorce. Purging books is difficult enough without all that extra stress to go along with it. But I think your ways of “culling” were so creative and varied. Kudos for that! You’ve given me great ideas for reducing my own pile. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so pleased that my culling tips seem useful! I go through a similar but less intense process on a regular basis over here when the shelves start to look too full and double-stacking looks like my only option.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh, my Good Lord, Rebecca. That sounds rough. It also sounds like you did the most incredible job. Here’s hoping your parents settle into their new places, and also that you get a little bit of time to yourself to process if you need it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. That must have been an exhausting trip Rebecca, in many, many ways. Well done for tackling all you did in a short space of time as well as caring for your parents.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I do think my presence was helpful and appreciated. It’s one of the perks of being a freelancer: I can choose to reduce my work load for a time, and can do it from anywhere with an Internet connection.

      Like

  7. You really did your research when it comes to getting rid of books and other items. I commend you and know it must have been really emotional, saying goodbye to the place, hometown, and the memories of your family being together. My parents divorced in 1991, I was 13. I wish you and your parents both well in this new chapter of being.

    To a lesser extent, I know the loss of place – my grandmother and uncle lived in Middle TN all their lives and now they’re both gone and we (my mom and I) have no reason to travel there anymore. The house belongs to someone else. I still get misty-eyed and down especially at holidays. I miss them and the place, the travel – so many memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My mom says she wants to drive by the house occasionally after it sells and check that the new owners are taking good care of it, but I don’t think I’d want to. For one thing, whenever my husband and I came back for a visit, my mom would put out American and British flags to welcome us, and knowing that’s never going to happen again would be too sad. I will probably not have any reason to go back to that part of Maryland again, especially because several close friends have moved out of state in the last few years. I’ll even miss silly things like going to the shopping areas I always visited, just because they were so familiar. And I will definitely miss the public library.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. So sorry, whether you’re an adult or a child, the effects of your parents’ divorce is tough. I was in my 20s when my parents split up, and my children were in their early teens when my then husband and I did. We all survived, but difficult times. As to book and stuff disposal: we did all that when we left France. We gave it such a lot of thought, but not all our decisions were good, and as a hoarder, I still regret some losses. And finally, though we did sell many books, Oxfam and Amnesty International were the main beneficiaries. And that’s fine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah yes, you’ve done it all before. Moving countries once and for all must have been awfully hard for a hoarder! Had I had unlimited time, I would have liked to make more shrewd reselling decisions, but I did okay considering the constraints. Even if I didn’t make back anywhere near what I paid for all these books, I can consider that I have helped a number of independent/secondhand bookstores and charity shops stay open over the years.

      I feel grateful that this didn’t happen when I was growing up or still in the early years of my marriage, though even now it is tough to lose that model relationship.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Ah, sorry to hear it’s been a less than happy reason for your visit. The only consolation I can think of is that at least it’s not your childhood home that you are losing as well. As someone who has had to move around (but always with the comforting knowledge that quite a large collection of my books are safely at my parents’ home), I can imagine what it must be like to say goodbye to things and memories. I love all the things your mother kept though. I *might* have done something similar with my kids…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. (She even kept all my Tooth Fairy teeth! Kind of gross, but also sweet.)

      I’ve driven back past my first home a few times over the years and always think how small it is! Whereas in my memories it looms so large.

      Like

      1. And yet it didn’t occur to you that tossing your braid into the woods wouldn’t be the perfect opportunity for someone to snag it and plant it at a crime scene or something equally diabolical? 😮 😀

        Like

  10. Dear Rebecca, I am sorry to learn of the extended circumstances regarding your trip and helping with the move. It would appear to me that you tackled this with all the expertise and organization that you put into your professional life. It is incredible to me how organized you are, how you break things down, even under difficult, emotional circumstances – and then make something useful, and meaningful to others, out of the same circumstances – to share with us all. This was a monumental, emotional energy draining life task – and you got through it with probably enough insights to last a very long time. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us. Wishing you all the best.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I forgot that there was no Library Checkout post this month and then saw this. Like other commenters, I am sorry to hear why you had to return here to the States. But it probably is good that you are writing about it, not keeping it bottled up either. As for your culling, my wife and I did a similar thing at our house and ended up asking similar questions to yours. We now have a book case that is only three quarters full, but we’re okay with that. We still get books from libraries.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. It did help a little bit to write about it.

      That’s a great thing to aim for — empty space on bookshelves to expand into! I only have free space on one of my bookcases, but I brought back a few sets of bookends so that if I wanted to start another row on the top of cases I could.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m so sorry to hear about the reason for your trip, Rebecca. That must have been incredibly challenging for you, both emotionally and physically. Take care of yourself over the next few weeks – sometimes these big life events can take a while to come to terms with.

    Like

    1. Thank you, Jacqui. It’s been hard watching my family fall apart from a distance over the last five years or so. I was glad to have a chance to fly over and do something practical to help.

      Like

  13. Very sorry you’ve been through the wringer with this; looks like you’ve approached it all very sensibly. When I turned about 18 my parents threw all my stuff out so I ended up like a snail with her huge load of possessions from then on – gathering more boxes in my 30s when they threw the last stuff out I hadn’t known they still had. So I have an odd assortment here, but I did manage recently to donate a whole large bag of beanie babies and the like, given to me by a long-gone ex, to the local women’s refuge (for the kids who go there) which was remarkably OK. Well done you.

    I try to get rid of books upon finishing reading now, or at least sort them into shelving and leaving.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’d only just managed to get our last box out of my in-laws’ attic earlier in the year, and then I had to face this! One day I will finally not have anything in storage with any parent.

      I was remembering the more unusual tips from Year of No Clutter, which I won on your site, like scanning all her kids’ artwork into a display book, and making her ratty old clothes into a quilt. If I’d had more time and resources I could have tried strategies like that, but photographing things has been about all I could do.

      I try to make a decision about each book straight after reading it, but sometimes it lapses for some months until shelf space becomes critical. It’s probably better for me to build in that bit of time, because I’ve impulsively gotten rid of a few books over the years that I’ve then regretted the loss of.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Indeed, the “Hell Room”! I’ve always been a tidy person with a place for everything, so have never let things get so bad as that. My poor sister basically has a whole hell basement from merging households after her remarriage.

      Like

    1. I do like feeling efficient and finding a proper destination for everything. What felt less good was realizing how many of these books I bought for myself or received as presents and then never read. Or seeing college textbooks and thinking “I wish I’d kept up that interest” or “All those things I used to know!”

      Like

  14. You’ve done marvellously given the stress of the situation, and managed to make some money from some on the side which can’t be bad. Letting some things go after photographing is a good plan. I hope you got some sense of relief from having dealt successfully with so much stuff.
    I had planned to do a yard sale and a car boot this summer with lots of my piles waiting to go, but couldn’t bear to stand out there in the heat in July – and now everyone’s on holiday.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. It didn’t feel like ‘job done’ because of leaving so much stuff behind and the uncertainty over when the house will sell. But it was a good start, and I did feel like I at least fulfilled my responsibility of dealing with my own belongings after so many years.

      I’ve never been to a yard sale in the UK! Finding yard sales used to be a favorite summer activity of mine in the States, though. Maybe one day I’ll host one over here. Where are the good car boot sales near you? How do you advertise before a sale?

      Like

      1. I’m lucky, my house is on a major pedestrian route into town – so I just leave boards outside a few days before, and post on our local FB group. I also try to start early, to catch people on their way to work! The Abingdon car boot at Peachcroft is not good for selling books – great for clothes and bric-a-brac.

        Liked by 1 person

  15. That can’t have been an easy process to go through, so well done for getting so much done. Only last week I had a kind of menopausal crisis and set light to twenty years worth of diaries/journals and an old first draft of a novel that I knew I’d never take any further. To be honest, when I lit the match I didn’t know whether the bonfire would be part of a process of shedding – out with the old, making way for the new – or would mark an ending. It felt scary but does seem to have stimulated renewed vigour in my motivation to write, so it turned out to be a risk worth taking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That was a big step. I would have been too chicken, and too sentimental — I associate my past with objects like that, and so would be worried about losing part of my identity — but I applaud you for doing what you felt was necessary to move on.

      My mother has 20+ years worth of journals that she says I can have once she’s gone. I don’t know how I’ll feel about that when the time comes, but I know I’d read them, at least selectively, before destroying them.

      Like

  16. Wow, not exactly an easy breezy trip. I’m glad you were able to sort through things and get your mom settled. And good for you for purging. I’m a big fan of letting go of STUFF. It’s not easy but I always feel lighter and more free afterward.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. That’s quite a trip! And quite a lot of stuff to sort through -literally and figuratively- with that kind of a history behind a decision to divorce. That’s not easy for anybody. I probably would have waited until I’d come out the other side of the experience to talk about it too!

    I’m glad that you were able to come up with a system and glad that others here have found it useful to see the decision-making process itemized like that. I took all my things with me when I moved out as a teenager, so I’ve never had that kind of “return” to deal with, but I have had to deal with sorting of other kinds and the emotional toll is significant and long-lasting. Did it help to write out this post after all was said and done?

    Even though it’s quite true that memories are more important than things, now that neurologically we understand how fragile memories are, for booklovers books can contain memories, in their very object-ness, so it’s doubly hard to part with those (although I’m sure you kept all that kind). And at least you “found” some new books while you were there too and, undoubtedly, made a few new memories along the way as well.

    Like

    1. The situation is still ongoing because the house has been languishing on the market for nearly two months and so we don’t know precisely what the details of the divorce will be. So right now it doesn’t feel like a ‘clean break’. By the time I fly back for Christmas, though, it should all be in the past, and that will be something of a relief.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s hard. I’m not sure there is ever such a thing as a “clean break” anyway though. Divorce is such a major change – for all involved, in and around it – that there is always some other part of the process, part of the reshaping of things. Ever unfolding, never unfolded. I hope the Christmas visit is a good one, filled with more bookish discoveries!

        Like

    2. My parents have been living apart for most of the last four years, so in that sense it’s nothing new, but I expect there will be a final breaking off of communications and I don’t know how we’re going to work holidays in the future. Probably separate get-togethers.

      Like

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.