Thursday, May 12, 2011


About two weeks ago, I set out to make a project from a book that I edited. It's called The Repurposed Library, and it's all about using old books that are falling apart and no one wants anymore and turning them into new projects. Like chandeliers and shelves and stash boxes, and artsy stuff like "book-mobiles" (i.e., hanging mobiles made from books). Honestly, there is some really really cool stuff in this book. Click here to see a gallery of some of the projects.

I decided that I would make the Sewing Box...where you cut out the interior pages of the book and cut down some balsa wood to make "compartments" for all of your little sewing goodies, and then you hot glue the whole thing together. I set out after work one day to find the right book to cut up and use for my sewing box, but finding the right book turned out to be much harder than I thought. I learned something about myself that day: I am very in love with books!
Lisa Occhipinti, the author of The Repurposed Library, gives us ample information about which books are ideal for cutting up and which ones you should leave as is. And honestly, I love the idea of doing something cool with the botany photos from an old, outdated encyclopedia that is sitting on a dusty shelf in the basement of a library. But when I went out to find my book, I ran into some problems. Namely, I kept buying books that had value! And not just monetary value...I mean sentimental value, or this-is-too-pretty-to-cut-up value, or this-is-too-freaking-cool-for-words value. Or maybe I just have a disapproving old librarian who has taken up residence in my psyche? (By the way, if I had a guardian angel, it would totally be a disapproving librarian.)
So here are a few of the books that I bought and simply could not cut up. Published in 1900, this one seems to be a first trade printing. Will I ever read the book? Probably not. But the cover design and the gilt lettering are so very sweet. Not to mention that on, there are copies of this book listed for between $50 and $100. Clearly I need to take it to a rare book dealer to find out what the heck I actually have, but in the meantime, I like the idea of having a 111 year old book in my house. We've become fast friends.
The same day I bought To Have and To Hold, I bought this book called Modern French Decoration. On the subway ride home, I had already decided that I could never ever cut up this book. Published in 1930, it's full of black-and-white photos of art deco-style home decor. When I got home and did some research, I learned that it is one of the first studies of art deco--as in, before it was called art deco--and is considered to be an authoritative reference on the topic. Not to mention it was written by a woman, which is pretty awesome for that time. It's probably in the $30 range (though it could be as much as $150 if it's a 1st edition). Too cool!
But know what? It gets cooler! As I was flipping through the book, I found a clipping tucked between two of the pages: A living room set up that the former owner clearly found inspiring.
On the backside of the clipping was text from the newspaper where it came from, referencing The New Deal. Yes, as in the series of economic programs implemented by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was the President at that time. I'm not gonna lie. I nearly peed my pants when I found this.
But guess what? I'm not done yet! On the very last page of this lovely French decor book was the sweetest thing I've ever seen: a sketch of a room. A humble sketch from an earnest amateur designer, someone who wanted to French-i-fy her home in the 1930s and was just starting to feel out her ideas. Don't you want to know how her home decor project turned out? What was her story? Where did she live?

Oh! I love the many lives that books lead, the hands they get passed through. That's just the thing...I always get the sense when I pick up a used book that there is some sort of energy running through it, like you can feel that someone has held this book and felt something, thought something, been inspired (or maybe even annoyed or bored.) But to have a sketch like this is priceless. It's testament to the book's former life. It's physical manifestation of a human that was inspired.
Finally, one of favorite finds on my book hunt was this one, called The Pilot. A special edition printed in 1968, I picked up this book primarily because of its clean white canvas cover and bold wood-blocked sailboat. To my immense happiness, I found more of these wood-block prints throughout the book. Of spooky trees and distant sailboats....
And of raging storms and turbulent green water....
Yet again, I found that this book could be worth some serious cash-ola, but I kind of like having the images all together as a collection in a crisp white cover. (Though wouldn't these be pretty framed all together on a wall?
Alas, I did finally find a book that I felt okay about cutting up! A 1955 Reader's Digest Condensed Book, which (to my judgmental editor's mind) is just bastardized literature anyway. Okay, okay, I'm being mom did say to me that she always found them to be "a quick, fun read!" But seeing as these are plentiful and are not exactly being read much these days--and most importantly, have vibrantly printed hard cover cases--I thought it would be an excellent cutter-upper.

So I turned it into a sewing box.

I do hope you have enjoyed my little tour of magical old books! I really had no idea what I was getting myself into when I started shopping, and now I look at old books in a completely different way. Look at how much I learned? How much I pondered humanity? The beauty of old books versus the cold plastic of an e-reader? The feeling that we are all keepers of vast libraries where we share books with the dead and with generations yet to be born? Pretty cool stuff, in my opinion.

Alas, if you have an old book and want to know if it's worth something, go to and play around with their search engine. You will likely get lost for hours, as I have, but you'll feel like a real smarty-pants nerd when all is said and done.


  1. Ok, I have to comment on this story. First of all, it doesn't matter if the book is worth $$ or not, bottom line, when you love books like we do it is next to impossible to cut them up- the guilt is just too much! Secondly, the darling sewing box is the exception. The cover is perfect and the pictures can be salvaged for framing. Also, I would like to read "To have and to hold". Isn't that a vintage movie with Lauren Bacall? I'll have to check that out. 5 Stars on this blog story.

  2. I know! I LOVE the idea of crafting with books, but it's funny how many questions it raises-- you really have to do some soul searching to figure out how you feel about cutting up a book. I think it's funny that I kept buying books that I knew in the back of my head I would never cut up. (I believe that's called "denial." Ha!)