Home & Garden: Organizing the Attic Home & Garden
Week Four: Organizing Books

Every disorganized person needs a scapegoat, and on Week 4 of my crusade to clear our hopelessly overstuffed attic, I chose my husband, Bob.

Having already sorted through holiday decorations, I turned to books, smug in the belief that Bob was responsible for the boxes up there filled with volumes going back to college. I love books, but I don't insist on a lifelong relationship with every one of them. Nearly three years ago, for example, our local middle school organized a used-book sale and I donated more than 200 of my own books to the cause. Bob mysteriously went missing during this exercise. So as the piles of clutter spread like ivy across our attic floor these past few years, I convinced myself that if only Bob would thin out his books, the room would be usable, or at least accessible.

On the issue of books I got surprisingly little help from Caitlin Shear, the professional organizer who has signed on to be my coach and hand holder during this process. Each week she has led me through the sorting, scrapping and separation anxiety of dealing with clutter. But when it comes to books, fiction and nonfiction, she is unabashedly a keeper.

"I am a big books person," she admits. "I tend to get rid of everything else before I will let go of a book." She has even allowed her husband, Mike, to keep his collection of science-fiction paperbacks from the early 1980s. "I am," she says, "a total bibliophile."

So am I. My father was a book editor early in his journalism career, so the New York apartment where I grew up was lined with books. They were the only things my parents allowed themselves to collect, and somehow they made room for 1,100 volumes on shelves in three of our four smallish rooms. They added warmth and color to our white-wall rental.

Trying to get rid of those books after both my parents died was a nightmare. The local branches of the New York Public Library would not take them. A few nonprofits would have accepted them, but transporting 1,100 books across the city to the drop-off sites -- in a small car, with a baby -- while the landlord pressed us to empty the apartment proved too daunting.

We were faced with the depressing prospect of consigning them and the memories they held to the incinerator shaft until my friend Alicia came to the rescue. She recommended Housing Works Used Book Cafe in SoHo, where all profits go to services to help homeless people living with HIV and AIDS. They would pick up the books as long as we could pack them up. Bob heroically pulled an all-nighter while baby and I slept until the truck arrived to pick them up the next morning. Unspeakable relief.

Ever since then, I have been skittish about the size of our book collection, which peaked at about 600 when we moved into our house in the District seven years ago. So for this week's exercise in space clearing, I insisted that Bob join Caitlin and me in the attic to make tough choices. We worked independently for nearly two hours; we agreed that he would not make decisions about any of my books and I would have no say about his. As I piled up my paperback novels to donate, I could hear him muttering things like: "I bought that. I've never read it. Stupid me."

In the end, we donated 25 hardcover and 42 paperback books to the Kings Park branch of the Fairfax County Public Library. More than half of those were contributions from Bob, including Joe Lieberman's autobiography; nearly a dozen books on the general theme of urban sprawl, including my personal favorite: a book-length federal document from the early 1980s known as the Urban Development Annual Report; and assorted other nonfiction tomes. We're down to about 200 books, neatly piled in 10 boxes lined up against the wall. For these, we plan to get proper shelves in the living room.

Caitlin says that for many people -- including herself -- books are among the most difficult things to part with. But she has two tips for anyone trying to get a handle on an overgrown collection: First, check the condition of the book. "Are the pages so brittle and yellow that you're never going to read them?" If so, she says, donate. And second, "be realistic about the format you like to read them in." Most people never re-read paperbacks they've kept for a while, especially the smaller ones, she says.

Here are a few other places in the Washington region that will accept book donations: Montgomery County's Friends of the Library and Books for America.

Thinning out your own book collection? Share your strategies at organize@washpost.com.

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About the Series

Got an attic abandoned to clutter and chaos? For the next 11 weeks, join Home staffer Liz Seymour and professional organizer Caitlin Shear sort through, toss out, tidy up and reclaim the space -- one step at a time.

About Liz

Liz Seymour, deputy editor of The Washington Post Home section, grew up in a four-room apartment in Brooklyn with two very organized parents and almost no closet space. Now she lives in a center-hall Colonial in D.C.'s American University Park neighborhood with her husband, Bob, children Margaret and Charlie, and one appallingly overstuffed attic.

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