Although an avid reader, Bajaj never consumed a word of these three volumes. Instead, the tomes — purchased from a wholesaler after going unsold — line the shelves in the library-themed seating area of his Indian restaurant Rasika West End in Washington.
This is where so many of America’s discarded books end up – places like Rasika West End, where some of Bajaj’s collection sits in anonymity with their spines and titles facing the back of the shelves. They spice up boring hotel bars and live in corporate lobbies. These are insta-gravitas props on movie sets and enhanced Zoom backgrounds for the pandemic era. Often they are sold to interior designers by the linear foot (about 10-12 pounds per foot typically), or new underbooked homeowners, or chain store decorators and myriad others.
Want 10 feet of 10 inch tall purple backed books that have never been opened? How about 100 feet of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple books to make your shelves look like a rainbow flag? It’s doable – and it’s done.
Chuck Roberts, owner of Wonder Book & Video in Frederick, Maryland, buys truckloads of new and unsold books, known in trade and dreaded by authors, as scraps. Brokers pick them up for pennies from publishers or bookstores, and Roberts is ready to strike a deal. He recently bought a load of 44,000 pounds of about 38,000 pounds remaining.
Roberts, who sells both used and unused books, told me he’s already provided two thousand — yes, two thousand — of books as decor for more than 100 Restoration Hardware locations (now known as RH) in the United States and Canada. The store wanted the books wrapped in linen and the spines stained with tea. He dipped countless tea bags into buckets filled with hot water. But once he had made his beverage on an industrial scale, he still had to ask himself the problem of its application.
“It was a learning curve,” said Roberts, who typically holds around £5million in his warehouse and three outlets. “Brush? Paint roller? I finally came up with the idea for a garden sprayer.
Roberts, who has provided books for numerous films, including Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds’ 2009 film “The Proposal,” is spoiled for choice. Somewhere between 600,000 and 700,000 books are printed each year — about a million if you count self-published books — according to an estimate by Publishers Weekly editorial director Jim Milliot. Only a fraction become even modest sellers.
The others are doomed to uncertain fates. They might siphon off to a used bookstore, or they might find their way directly from the publisher to bulk book dealers.
It is often said that books sold by the foot enjoy a “beyond” as decoration. Countless less fortunate books die horribly, pulped and turned into toilet paper or, worse, dumped in landfills.
That is, unless people like Joe McKim intervene. McKim once dreamed of becoming a doctor. Then he became fascinated with unloved books and scuttled the idea of medical school. He now runs about a million books at a time from a 40,000-square-foot former tire warehouse in Richmond, where he packs bundles of books for sale and runs a foot-and-color decorating business called the book bundler.
There’s something about book resuscitation that produces an irresistible pang in people with a rescue instinct. Like McKim, Pat Oza, running O3 Books, a thriving footbook business on Etsy and on its own website, dropped out of medical school. “It hurts to see them kicked out,” Oza told me.
At McKim’s warehouse, the books arrive in 3-foot-tall, 4-foot-wide circular cardboard boxes that weigh about 1,000 pounds and are known as “gaylords,” a box-maker’s name that has become a catch-all, like Kleenex is for facial tissue. A gaylord is a magical, mystifying thing – a purse, a treasure hunt. McKim, who has made a name for himself selling bundles of children’s books, usually only has a vague idea of what’s inside.
On a recent afternoon, he rummages through a stacked gaylord with a hodgepodge of books, brandishing a scanner like a sci-fi ray gun looking for works that might have some value and can be sold individually, rather than on foot. There are damaged books with frayed edges next to books still wrapped in plastic.
There are manuals. Technical manuals. Leather-bound vintage tomes with gold edges so delicate and intricate it breaks your heart to think someone threw them away. Cheap and cheesy books. There are spectacular obscurities.
Here, a first signed edition from 1995 “Treasures of the Confederate Coast: The ‘Real Rhett Butler’ and Other Revelations.” There, a soft copy of “A Tea for All Seasons: Celebrating Tea, Art, and Music at the Elmwood Inn” from 1996.
McKim’s scanner creaks when it comes across “Boatbuilding With Aluminum.” “It’s the sound of cha-ching. It’s a niche,” he says of the 2006 tome. “It’s worth something.”
McKim’s foot book designer, Charlotte Tillier, is always on the lookout for the most popular book spines: pink and purple. Not many of those out there. She sells three feet of vintage red-backed books for $138; but the same length in vintage pink and purple is $300. Tillier has become adept at storing orange-and-black-backed books for the requests that pour in around Halloween, and red, white, and blue books for the Fourth of July.
There’s a counter-intuitive phenomenon to their business – it’s not just obscure books that don’t sell and eventually become available by the linear foot. There are also thousands of books by well-known authors, the result of certain titles being overpublished. Sometimes warehouses like theirs have been flooded with novels by mega bestsellers, such as Patricia Cornwell and James Patterson. Roberts, the owner of Wonder Book, purchased up to 2,000 books at a time from the same author.
Every once in a while, someone scolds McKim that he’s disrespecting the books by selling them as decor, probably because they’re not meant to be read anymore. But there are some breakthroughs. Many nights, Ashok Bajaj looked through his restaurant to see a restaurant unexpectedly drawn in the pages of one of his books.
Some time ago, a customer asked Atul Narain, the general manager of Rasika West End, if it was okay to take one of the books home – to read it. Time passed, then the client contacted Narain. He was having the book couriered back to the restaurant. Maybe, just maybe, someone else would like to read it too.
Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer for the Washington Post.