The first estate sale I went to was almost the last. It was in a senior community in Roseville. I saw a sign and went on a whim. I was probably the youngest person in there. An older lady sat at a table near the door with a flimsy cash box and an email sign-up sheet. She smiled and wished everyone who walked through the front door a good morning.
The house remained basically how it was before the sale. China in display cabinets, the old TV on a just-as-old TV stand, Ethan Allan furniture from the 1990s. Someone had vacuumed and dusted. I was able to walk through the house, pick up items, open drawers and cabinets, riffle through closets. They had set up additional tables in the backyard and garage, all packed with the stuff we never realize we accumulate. What caught my eye the most was a built-in bookcase filled with old books. As I sorted through the books, I heard someone choking back sobs.
I turned to find a man in his sixties crying into the shoulder of what appeared to be his wife. Estate sales are generally quiet - you hear people whispering, you might hear someone asking how much something is - so the sobbing was poignant. He was crying so hard the brim of his golf cap dug deep into the shoulder blade of his wife. His mom was the one who had passed. I suddenly felt like an asshole. A trespasser. I was looking for a good deal. A random stranger peering into this man's mother's stuff. The man and his wife were blocking the path to the front door so, feeling guilty, I put the four books I'd chosen back into the shelf and walked out to the backyard.
I casually looked through the items and soon realized the man's mother was an eclectic woman. There were stacks of romance novels, old records, glassware from Sweden, puzzles, purses, gardening tools, not to mention the Beanie Babies and World War II paraphernalia. And you won't get away from it at any estate sale - Christmas decorations: ceramic Santas, plastic reindeer, some hand-sewn stockings. I found myself touching everything, running my fingers across the chips in plates, the frayed ends of tablecloths. I stayed out there for at least twenty minutes, then walked back inside.
I stopped again at the books. For some reason, every estate sale has books by Leon Uris and James Michener - thick, thick, books that most of us wouldn't have the patience to read, much less hold in our hands. There were Bibles, Self-Help books, books on medicine, and the books that originally piqued my interest - four William Faulkner hardbacks from the 1950s.
"See something you like?"
I glanced sideways and found the man next to me, a smile on his face.
"I think so," I said.
"My mom would be glad," he said. "She was a voracious reader. Definitely not something I inherited!" He placed his hand on my shoulder as we laughed. He lingered for a moment, staring at the books, then began to talk to all the strangers in his mom's house.
I've been to many estate sales since then. After that first experience, I feel utterly compelled to just go. I wake up early on Saturday mornings and map my route for the day. There are always cool things to see - old coins, stamps, yearbooks, cigar boxes, Elvis stuff… links, at once, to our own history as seen via the history of another individual. Usually the surviving family is there. Even if you can often tell that they've been crying recently, they sometimes offer stories about those passed. If you're lucky, you'll feel connected to a human being you never knew.
Recently, I've found myself involved in discussions, both online and in person, regarding why I don't own a Kindle. Without delving too much into Postmodern thought, one of the major concerns about the increase of technology is the loss of the human body, the decline of the senses of the human body. Technology requires less touch. Almost zero smell and zero taste. We'll likely always need to see and hear, but our senses of touch, smell, and taste are being used less and less. We can "like" instead of hug. We can text instead of kiss. We can manage relationships wirelessly, slowly forgetting what real intimacy, real physical human connection feels like.
Books are one of the last remaining bastions of the old world that requires touch. Sometimes, if you flip through the pages of an old book, you can smell the history, too. Hands have touched that. Invisible fingerprints are on those pages. You actually need to press your fingers to the page and flip. You have to figure out a way to hold the book in whatever position you're in. You might argue that you have to do these things with a Kindle, too, but the one big difference is that the tactile experience of reading a Kindle will be the same with every e-book. Each physical book is a different physical experience. Some are big. Some are small. Some are old and need to be handled with care. Some have print you need to squint at, so you need to hold the book close to your face. Part of the reading experience becomes how you hold it, where you read it. Reading a heavier book and need to adjust? Maybe the heavy book forces you to lie down, supporting the book with a pillow. Need to find a place where there's appropriate light? Maybe you sit in a new place. Maybe you stand up and open the blinds to let the sunlight in. Maybe you walk to the park and sit on a bench. Maybe you grab a night light. What you don't do is increase the brightness of your screen's backlight.
You will argue for environmental reasons and you'd likely be right - a recent study reported on by the New York Times showed the carbon footprint of one book to be much, much more than that of an ebook. But this is a duh moment, right? Not really. In another article, a writer calculated the carbon footprint of using an e-reader for a year versus reading books for a year and discovered that, when taking the entire average energy output of the e-reader itself (not just the process of reading the ebook on the e-reader), the carbon footprint of the e-reader is almost five times as much. I also didn't mention the easier recyclability of books, the often improper disposal of e-readers, etc., but that's okay.
You will argue for convenience and you would be right. You can carry thousands of books on one device. I won't say anything about your machine dying, or files getting corrupted, or breaking, because those are rare occurrences - but books, no matter what you do to them, don't die, get corrupted, or break for no reason. You will argue for space and you would be right. Kindles take up less space. They are easy to hide, put in a box or place in a drawer. You probably won't stick the e-reader on a shelf where everyone can see it because no one thinks e-readers are beautiful or physically-pleasing to look at. No one thinks they should be visible in the "home," you know, that place where humans live. I bet you have books in shelves, though.
And yes, there's a business side to estate sales too, and a business side to book collecting. Whenever I come home with new old books and see Patty's face wondering where exactly I'm going to put those, I tell her that first book club edition of The Old Man and the Sea I bought for a dollar sells for $50-$75 online. She says I'm never going to sell it. And she's right. It's not about that, really. It's about the humanity of it.
Perhaps I'm not making a good enough argument, so I'll let someone else speak for me. I recently bought a 1976 edition of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein at an estate sale. In it, a woman named Cindy wrote:
"To: The Verdon Family
Always, when I am in your home, I feel so comfortable and at ease. This is the one of my most favorite books. It seemed most fitting for me to share it with you all. You happen to be a favorite and special family of mine. It can be quite a conversation piece as well as leave it's message lingering in your thoughts. Thank you for giving of yourselves to me. You're all very generous and kind people. Merry Christmas."
Cindy shared herself, her being, via a book. She was able to physically write in it, physically hand it to these people she cared about so much. She gave a piece of herself to someone else. At estate sales, this is what happens. You get to know someone. You carry the weight of their lives not in the things themselves, but the sense of touching those things, knowing that human hands once held them.
There's so much good that technology does. It allows us to communicate across distances, instantaneously exchange information, carry our books and documents wherever we go. I'm writing this on a laptop. I do own a smart phone. But the book, the physical book, is the last straw. Books require us to be physical. Books require us to use our sense of touch, to not forget what the physical world feels like or even smells like. Technology erases touch. It evaporates smell. It makes us two-dimensional creatures, seeing and hearing in 0s and 1s. And, above all, it eradicates intimacy, placing our human closeness into the cold plastic of electronic devices instead of the warm touch of our own, living hands.