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Press & Media » The Kansas City Star

A Big Fire From Pile Of Books The Owners Of A KC Store Have Received Thousands Of Comments, Media Attention.

The Kansas City Star (Newspaper) - 6/9/2007 by Matthew Harris
“For me it was like seeing someone burn the American flag. Anyone that’s a reader feels that this is a defacing of the written word.”
Barbara Vey, who writes a blog for Publishers Weekly, a publishing industry trade journal

It didn’t seem like that big a deal: Three dozen books set on fire in front of a used-book store.

The Kansas City Star ran a short story on Page B2.

Then 300 other papers picked it up. And now store owners Tom Wayne and Will Leathem have been slammed by many of the 5,000 people who have written to them from across the country. They are not close to getting through all the e-mails and letters.

A former poet laureate weighed in. So did a New York Times columnist. Stephen Colbert joked about it on TV’s “The Colbert Report.” The two owners have appeared on radio shows in Ireland and Argentina.

And yet …

“We’re going to have another book-burning,” Wayne said. “We just are.”

Setting fire to old books over the Memorial Day weekend, the owners of Prospero’s Books say, was a slap in the face of a culture that has come to venerate the glue and paper of books rather than the ideas they contain.

For 10 years the two men have run their store at the corner of 39th and Bell streets, and they say they are frustrated with the decline of people reading for pleasure.

Not everyone agrees that’s true, and lots of people just do not like the idea of destroying books.

“The ink we’ve received from burning what’s maybe three dozen books is mind-boggling,” Wayne said.

Rhonda Sitzes found out about the book-burning when she opened her Web browser and noticed the story featured on the page.

“They could have donated them to Operation Paperback,” said Sitzes, who lives in Bella Vista, Ark., and wrote a letter to The Star. “A lot of our troops really want books to read, and they would have loved to have them.”

Barbara Vey, who writes a blog for Publishers Weekly, a publishing industry trade journal, said she understood the owners’ angst at their books stacking up. Yet she could not help but feel a tinge of sadness when she found out that books had been destroyed.

“For me, it was like seeing someone burn the American flag,” Vey said. “Anyone that’s a reader feels that this is a defacing of the written word.”

June Jurek, who lives in Brockton, Mass., read about the book-burning in the Boston Herald.

“He just wants to make a point, and I get that,” Jurek said. “But he doesn’t have to burn all those lovely books.”

The owners had other options, she said.

“All he has to do is put an ad in the paper saying to come and get free books,” she said. “He could have just stood on a street corner and handed them out — people will take them.”

It’s not that easy, Wayne said.

In fact, he said, they did all they could to keep from burning them. For years, they had joked about doing that as boxes filled up their basement, then a storage facility and finally a downtown warehouse that a friend was generous enough to let them use.

Efforts to donate unsold books en masse also did little to help.

They tried to donate them to Missouri prisons but were turned away, told the books might contain contraband. Leathem even donated 20 boxes to a fundraising event — but someone bought them and then, not knowing their source, put them back on Prospero’s stoop. Every time teachers come in looking for books for their classroom, they invariably end up getting some free.

At some point, finding takers for the books became a burden.

“If you take a box or two, or even five, and drive them to thrift stores, then you can get rid of them,” Wayne said. “But that takes a lot of effort to load your car up and drive around — that can take half a day.”

Buried among the piles of letters, though, is a possible solution.

PaperBackSwap is asking its people to sign a petition asking Prospero’s to give the books to the Atlanta-based company, which helps its members exchange books for the mere cost of postage, said Richard Pickering, one of the co-founders.

If given the books, Pickering and fellow co-owner Robert Swarthout will come to Kansas City, load them into trucks and drive back to Atlanta, making stops along the way to give books to PaperBackSwap members.

Pickering said that he agrees with Wayne and Leathem that reading is in decline but that he thought he could help find homes where the books would be read.

“I’ve got a whole lot of people who are not just asking for, but begging to have, some of his books,” Pickering said.

Wayne has not turned the offer down, but said it was still early.

“We still have to look at everything that’s on the table,” he said.

Ideally, the two would like to get some money for their books so they could try to publish the works of Kansas City area authors, Leathem said.

Their reasoning also goes beyond practical or economic considerations. Even if the books are saved and sent to far-off locales, the underlying problem of people not reading will not be radically changed.

Yet there are those who say that people are not reading less, but that the way they shop for and get books has changed.

With the advent of the Internet, the way people look for books is different, said Susan Benne, executive director of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America.

“There’s a lot less people traveling and scouting for items in bookstores,” she said. “It certainly changes the market.”

But Prospero’s owners hold up a 2002 study by the National Endowment for the Arts reporting that less than half of adults had read a novel or play that was not required by their work or for school.

“What’s valuable about a book is what’s inside of it,” Leathem said. “And if what’s inside of a book is not encountered by a human animal, then you should just burn it.”

To reach Matthew Harris, call 816-234-4449 or send e-mail to
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