Book Shelving: Check It Out | Behind the Book, July 2015

I love books. I like to inhale their special perfume: the sharp tang of printer’s ink mixed with the slightly lemony scent of paper, plus a hint of dust and vanilla. I like librarians, the bookkeepers. They are smart and eager to answer my questions, no matter how offbeat.

And I like libraries. All those books in one place. They’re mine, all mine, to have and to hold for at least two weeks. I have a serious reading jones: I devour four or five books a week. My hands shake if I don’t have one. I stash books everywhere: in my office, by the bed, next to my living room chair. I couldn’t afford that habit without the library.

From bookshelves to book carts: (l.) volunteer Viets returns items to their proper place at the Galt Ocean Mile Reading Center, Fort Lauderdale, FL; (r.) the author (in red) joins Windsor Branch P.L. staff in Barnhart, MO, with the library cart pimped out like the cover of Checked Out

From bookshelves to book carts: (l.) volunteer Viets returns items to their proper place at the Galt Ocean Mile Reading Center, Fort Lauderdale, FL; (r.) the author (in red) joins Windsor Branch P.L. staff in Barnhart, MO, with the library cart pimped out like the cover of Checked Out

Checked Out, my 14th “Dead-End Job” mystery, takes place at a library. The setting was a natural. For each book in the series, my detective heroine Helen Hawthorne works a different low-paying job. To research Checked Out, I volunteered at the Galt Ocean Mile Reading Center near my home in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Galt is part of the award-winning Broward County Library system.

Galt Ocean Mile is a stretch of ritzy beach condos. Many residents are older, well-educated New Yorkers. In the past, they were snowbirds who flew north in the summer. But now more Galtonians live year-round in Florida, and their library has become their club, with classes, book discussions, and even a theater group. Galt is a reading center, not a full library, so it’s stocked mostly with popular fiction and biographies.

A soothing chore

As a volunteer, I shelved DVDs and books. Book shelving is an endless chore that wears down the toughest librarians, but I found it soothing. I like restoring order to the shelves. I’d remove the Charlaine Harris vampire novels that had drifted into Thomas Harris’s thrillers and return them to their proper place.

Shelving is good exercise. Most novels weigh about a pound, but I can bench-press 800-pagers such as Greg Iles’s The Bone Tree. Shelving has plenty of bending and stretching. I’m six feet tall—about ten inches taller than the staff at Galt—and I was tempted to leave the lower-shelf novels on the cart for the shorter librarians. But I did my duty, even though my knees sounded like popcorn.

Volunteering at a library is rewarding. It was a thrill to see my mysteries on the library shelves, rubbing covers with Barbara Vine’s. It was fun to recommend my favorite writers, if a patron asked for help. If they liked my suggestions, I felt like a successful matchmaker. As I shelved and straightened, creating order and restoring reason, I’d find things that didn’t belong on the shelves: bus schedules, paper napkins, flyers. Once I found a bra. I wondered if it had been flung off by a passionate book lover. Marlene Barnes, the library manager, explained that it was probably left by a homeless woman doing her laundry.

Homeless people are the libraries’ biggest secret. Many of them find refuge there, even in pricey communities like Galt Ocean Mile. Most homeless people behave like other patrons. Once in a while, a few turn angry or dangerous. One memorable night, we had a man roaming the aisles declaring “they” were after him. Another laughed hysterically as he sat at a computer, and a third shouted curses at anyone entering the building. I was impressed by how gracefully the librarians handled these difficult and sometimes scary people.

Soon, I became protective of “my shelves.” When a man—and it was always a man—pulled a fistful of DVDs out of the middle of a newly organized shelf and all the movies collapsed in a heap, I had to bite back a protest. I could shelve a full cart in about 60 minutes, but Marlene would only let me work one hour. “We’ve had shelvers do too much their first day and never come back. An hour is enough.”

One evening, I was shelving when Marlene told me that I was perfect for this job. “Was it my charm? My mastery of the alphabet? “You’re tall,” she said. “You can reach the top shelf.”

Elaine Viets ( is the author of 28 mysteries in three series. Checked Out is the 14th novel in her best-selling “Dead-End Job” series, published in hardcover by Penguin’s NAL imprint

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  1. Nancy Wolter says:

    I share your passion for books, Elaine. I’ve read slightly over 3,000–yes, I keep count! I’ve also worked in a library as a teen; I was saddened when my former place of employment, Borders, shut down…now TJ’s. Books-A-Million, now Nordstom Rack, was my go to place to immerse my senses. No one can fathom the comfort I get being around books. As a young kid, we were poor, but I felt ‘rich’ when I went to the library. I was transported into the world of ballet, Nancy Drew, faraway lands, astronomy… The library became my favorite love.

    • Elaine Viets says:

      I agree, Nancy. I had three noisy brothers, and the local library was my refuge. It was so peaceful — and it had all those books.