Thursday, July 10, 2008

The How To Section in the Bookshop

One of the bookstore ideas Dan and I kicked around when planning for our open shop was to specialize in How To books, those books that explain how to fix things, renovate buildings, plant gardens, learn how to play a harmonica, etc. We were basing this rather limited business scheme on ourselves. We have many linear shelf feet of books about historic home repair, furniture refinishing, plumbing, gardening, and way too many cookbooks, and we figured everyone out there was just like us.

In our home library, I count no less than six books on how to make rustic Adirondack furniture, seven on how to make your own fishing lures and equipment and a staggering number of back-to-the-land type books which, if all projects contained in these pages were implemented, would turn our 2-acre "estate" in a checkerboard of mini-garden plots and wind turbine engines. While Dan and I would need several lifetimes to read them all and build the strip canoes, the handmade paper journals, the artisan cheeses and the double-dug garden plots of our dreams, it is precisely the lure of these fantasies that keeps them on our shelves. They represent the things we want to do with the luxury of time and occasionally, woefully all too occasionally, they are opened like presents and a project actually gets explored.

One of the best series of How To books, and a wonderful shelf full of dreams it is, is the 12-volume Foxfire series published in the 1970s and much sought after by our bookstore customers and by ourselves, naturally. The original editions of the later books in the series are scarcer and very difficult to find, particularly Volume 5, which contains chapters on blacksmithing and flintlock rifles. The series is still in-print and can be purchased at the non-profit Foxfire website. Part Appalachian folklore, part country living bible, this series was originally written by Georgia high school students and makes for interesting reading, even if you have no intention of ever starting a quilt or handling a snake.

After the success of the Foxfire books, Pamela Wood captured New England folkways in her book, The Salt Book: Lobstering, Sea Moss Pudding, Stone Walls, Rum Running, Maple Syrup, Snowshoes, and Other Yankee Doings (NY: Anchor Press, 1977), which is also a great country living resource. A second Salt book followed in 1980, which covered more maritime pursuits.

Also highly recommended in the How To section are the three Tightwad Gazette books written and engagingly illustrated by Amy Dacyczyn (Villard Books, 1990s). Dacyczyn consolidated a compendium of frugal living advice, recipes, how-to instructions and philosophical essays in these books, suited for any lifestyle, and particularly relevant in these hard economic times.

I did want to point out that specializing in How-To books, while not necessarily a practical idea for an open shop, can work quite successfully as an online business. Witness our bookseller colleague Charmaine Taylor's great site, Dirt Cheap Building.
Charmaine stocks new and used books, DVDs and other materials on alternative, economical home building, and she generously offers many links to free articles and sites on these topics as well. You'll learn a lot about straw bale homes, papercrete, cordwood building and many other really cool, low-cost building techniques. Check it out.

Here's to having loads more free time to pore over our How To bookshelves....

1 comment:

--donna said...

Charmaine Taylor's site is great, I agree. What's really notable is that she's been doing it "green" since before "green" became a buzzword and movement. Not only that, but she walks the walk. I visited her when I was repairing sewing machines (did a house call) and while I was there she was working on some of her techniques, really quite fascinating, and lovely.