New York has lots of books: in stores, libraries, shelves in private collections, sidewalk sales, and sometimes, in boxes on sidewalks, being given away, with or without a sign that says ‘help yourself.’ These books have been abandoned; their former owners do not have the space (or time) for them any more. Perhaps a move is in the offing and a ruthless culling is called for, perhaps tastes have changed. They have not earned the privilege of a yard sale; rather, they are to be consigned quickly into the custody of a stranger for free. Take my book(s), please. I have never walked past such an offering without stopping. Who knows what goodies might lurk there? Human nature being what it is, my initial reaction is also invariably tinged with the slightest touch of suspicion: exactly why are these tomes being given away for free? But then I remember this city’s brutal space crunch, and my attitude softens just a bit: they’ve just happened to lose out in the relentless competition, the nonstop jostling for a home in a New York apartment. That battle for space has caused relationships to come apart, small wonder that books sometimes bear the brunt of the space manager’s machinations.
So, I stop, and look, and search. Many books are old and tattered; the reasons for their disposal are all too apparent. (I have disposed of many well-worn veterans too, though I have always handed them over to my neighborhood used bookseller, unable to leave them exposed to the elements.) Some are textbooks; their owner has presumably graduated or dropped out. Some are bestsellers; perhaps flavors of the day unlikely to endure as classics. Some are well-worn classics, perhaps easily replaceable because they will never go out of print. (My battered copy of War and Peace, a book I rather stupidly bought as a paperback will meet this fate someday; I will replace it with a hardcover at that point.) Sometimes, it is apparent an academic has cleansed his shelves; monographs bought in a rash moment of excessive ambition, never read, now face the prospect of tantalizing someone else with their promise of the esoteric. (Some of the books on the shelves in my university office will go out this way.) A special category all by itself is the cookbook and the self-help book; these show up with interesting regularity in sidewalk disposals; tastes change and so do one’s aspirations, I suppose.
Over the past couple of years most of my pickups have taken place on the same three-block stretch in Park Slope in Brooklyn, as I walk to and from my gym. (Some of my procurements have been real scores, yet others have made it home with me because the price has been right.) There doesn’t seem to have been any significant slowing of the pace of disposals, a clear indication that life in that part of Brooklyn is proceeding normally.
But as the digital book becomes ever more ubiquitous, it might displace the sidewalk disposal as well. Then, a mere drag to the Recycle Bin will do, with no need for a display of old-fashioned generosity. No more sidewalk pickups then.