Ashok Bajaj, the celebrated Washington, D.C., restaurateur, owns 281 copies of “Storm Warning: The Origins of the Weather Forecast,” a book published in 2005 that promised to explain “how weather prediction emerged from the realms of the seer and charlatan into credible acceptability.”
Though he is an avid reader, Bajaj has never consumed a word of these three volumes. Instead, the tomes — bought from a wholesaler after they went unsold — line the bookshelves in the library-themed seating area of his Indian restaurant Rasika West End in Washington.
This is where so many of the spurned books of America end up — places like Rasika West End, where some of Bajaj’s collection sits in anonymity with their spines and titles turned to the back of the shelves. They spice up dull hotel bars and live in corporate lobbies. They’re insta-gravitas props on movie sets and upgraded Zoom backgrounds for the pandemic era. Often they are sold to interior designers by the linear foot (about 10 to 12 books per foot typically), or to under-booked new homeowners, or chain store decorators and myriad others.
Want 10 feet of purple-spined, 10-inch-tall books that have never been opened? How about 100 feet of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet books to make your shelves look like a rainbow flag? It’s doable — and it’s been done.
Chuck Roberts, owner of Wonder Book & Video in Frederick, Md., buys tractor-trailer loads of new, unsold books, known in the trade and dreaded by authors, as remainders. Brokers pick them up for pennies from publishers or bookstores, and Roberts stands ready to make a deal. He recently bought a 44,000-pound load of about 38,000 remaindered books.
Roberts, who sells both used and remaindered books, told me he once provided two miles — yes, two miles — of books as decor for more than 100 locations of Restoration Hardware (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 plunked countless tea bags into buckets filled with hot water. But once he’d made his industrial-scale brew, he still had to confront the problem of how to apply it.
“That was a learning curve,” said Roberts, who typically holds about 5 million books at his warehouse and three retail locations. “Paintbrush? Paint roller? I finally came up with the idea of a garden sprayer.”
Roberts, who has provided books for numerous films, including the 2009 Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds flick “The Proposal,” has plenty from which to choose. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 600,000 to 700,000 books are printed each year — about a million if you count self-published books — according to a guesstimate by Publishers Weekly editorial director Jim Milliot. Only a fraction become even modest sellers.
The rest are consigned to uncertain fates. They might siphon down to a used bookstore, or they might find their way straight from the publisher to bulk book dealers.
It’s often said that books sold by the foot enjoy an “afterlife” as decoration. Untold numbers of less fortunate books die horrible deaths, pulped and made into stuff like 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 entranced with unloved books and scuttled the idea of medical school. He now presides over about a million books at a time in a 40,000-square-foot former tire warehouse in Richmond, where he packages bundles of books for sale and marshals a by-the-foot and by-color decor business called the Book Bundler.
There’s something about resuscitating books that produces an irresistible tug in people with an instinct for lifesaving. Like McKim, Pat Oza, who runs O3 Books, a thriving books-by-the-foot business on Etsy and his own website, gave up medical school. “It hurts to see them thrown out,” Oza told me.
At McKim’s warehouse, books arrive in 3-foot-tall, 4-foot-wide circular cardboard crates that weigh about 1,000 pounds and are known as “gaylords,” a box manufacturer name that has become a catch-all, like Kleenex is for facial tissues. A gaylord is a magical and mystifying thing — a grab bag, a treasure hunt. McKim, who made his name selling bundles of children’s books, usually has only the scantest notion about what will be inside.
On a recent afternoon, he burrows through a gaylord piled with a mishmash of books, wielding a scanner like some science fiction ray gun in search of works that might have some value and can be sold individually, rather than by the foot. There are wounded books with frayed edges next to works still wrapped in plastic.
There are textbooks. Technical manuals. Leather-bound vintage tomes with gold-tooled spines so delicate and intricately crafted that it breaks your heart to think someone tossed them. Cheap and cheesy books. There are spectacular obscurities.
Here, a signed first edition of 1995′s “Treasures of the Confederate Coast: The ‘Real Rhett Butler’ and Other Revelations.” There, a limp copy of 1996’s “A Tea for All Seasons: Celebrating Tea, Art, and Music at the Elmwood Inn.”
McKim’s scanner squawks when he happens upon “Boatbuilding With Aluminum.” “That’s the cha-ching sound. This is niche,” he says of the 2006 tome. “This is worth something.”
McKim’s books-by-the-foot designer, Charlotte Tillier, is ever on the lookout for those most-prized book spines: pink and purple. Not many of those out there. She sells three feet of vintage red-spined books for $138; but the same length of vintage pink and purple goes for $300. Tillier has become expert at stockpiling orange- and black-spined books for the requests that come roaring in around Halloween, and red, white and blue ones for the Fourth of July.
There’s a counterintuitive phenomenon in their business — it’s not just obscure books that go unsold and end up becoming available by the linear foot. There are also thousands of books by big-name authors, a result of over-publication of some titles. At times, warehouses such as theirs have been flooded by novels from mega-bestsellers, such as Patricia Cornwell and James Patterson. Roberts, the Wonder Book owner, has bought as many as 2,000 books at a time by the same author.
Occasionally, someone grouses to McKim that he’s disrespecting books by selling them as decor, presumably because they’re no longer meant to be read. But there are some breakthroughs. Many nights Ashok Bajaj has looked across his restaurant to see a diner unexpectedly drawn into the pages of one of his books.
A while back a customer asked Atul Narain, the Rasika West End general manager, if it was okay to take home one of the books — to read it. Time passed, then the customer contacted Narain. He was having the book couriered back to the restaurant. Maybe, just maybe, someone else might like to read it, too.
Manuel Roig-Franzia is a Washington Post staff writer.