B.C. man losing vision wants homes for 3,450 books

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In the 10 years since John William started to lose his vision, he’s been finding new ways to enjoy his vast personal library.

Right now, that involves glasses and a magnifying glass with bright lights illuminating the pages.

But William says it’s time to say goodbye to much of his collection, 3,450 books.

“Aside from going blind, I’ve had four spine surgeries and my doctor has warned me on numerous occasions to stop lifting things over five pounds,” he said. “Well, some of my books weigh five kilos.”

William said many of the books he owns — from a massive tome on the human cell to a rare first edition laying out the history of the Korean War — aren’t available in large print or audiobook form. It’s part of what’s motivating him to sell so many.

“When that book disappears, there aren’t any other books that I think are anything like that book. I don’t want that to disappear because I die or I go blind,” he said, referring to the book on the Korean War.

“I would like to pass it on to a hopefully a 30- to 40-year-old. And then they will keep it for 20 or 30 years and hopefully pass it on to somebody else. It’s an optimistic view, I understand.”

It’s not the only large collection looking for a home, according to Chris Brayshaw, owner of Vancouver independent bookseller Pulp Fiction Books, but he says William’s methods are certainly less conventional.

William posted about the sale of his collection in a local buy and sell Facebook group, complete with a massive spreadsheet detailing each title up for sale, and he said he’s already found homes for hundreds, mostly going to university students and families who home school their children.

A man stands behind a counter covered in books, helping a customer purchase books.
Chris Brayshaw, owner of Pulp Fiction Books, seen here attending to a customer at the now-closed Kitsilano location, says the used book market is being flooded and the amount of secondhand titles at his doorstep can feel like a ‘fire hose.’ (Ken Leedham/CBC)

Brayshaw says the used book market, like the antique market, is being flooded with aging generations’ large collections of books. As one of the last booksellers in southwestern B.C. offering to buy them for cash anymore, he sees multiple lots this size every week.

“Part of being successful [as a bookseller] is being able to winnow down what feels, some days, like a fire hose just shooting books through the front door, into things that have current market value and that are desirable and hard to find,” he told CBC News on Monday.

But Brayshaw says he only takes about five to seven per cent of what’s offered, and the rest is donated to charity thrift stores with which he partners.

He says what stays in the shop comes down to which books have stood the test of time or are new enough to still have a current audience.

“Sometimes things that folks feel like they spent a fair amount of money and a fair amount of time accumulating turn out to not have a lot of current interest or current market value, and sometimes the reverse is true,” said Brayshaw.

Stranger than fiction

Perusing the more than a dozen bookshelves that line most walls in William’s apartment, you might come across a profile of the oil giant ExxonMobil, books on the Cold War or even a pocket guide to trees.

The fiction options are much more sparse, it’s something he mostly avoids, unless you want to chat about the classics like “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy.

“Real life has so many unbelievable stories and twists that anyone who reads fiction should be satisfied with reading non-fiction, and knowing that these things actually happened,” he said.

A man stands next to a book shelf.
William says he has cultivated his mostly non-fiction book collection for decades, and hopes other people will be able to enjoy them after he can’t. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The 68-year-old said his love of educational reading material started in university, where he double majored in philosophy and English literature and went on to get a masters in philosophy.

William has a preference for smaller bookstores — like the Vancouver staple Duthie Books, which closed its last store in 2010 — over larger national chains, because he said they offer a more curated selection picked by people with a similar love for books.

“I’ll pick up a book because it looks like it might be interesting. I’ll flip through it. I’ll look at the table of contents, or look to see if the bibliography makes sense to me, and then, if I think the content is worthwhile, I’ll buy it,” he said.

He said he’s resigned to the fact that he soon won’t be able to see, but hopes his books will have found good homes.

“It’s approaching, I’m falling into it. There’s nothing I can do about that,” he said.

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