Moving books is a big pain. Here’s how to make it easier.

Books are important to Lokelani Alabanza. The pastry chef and ice cream maker collects rare and vintage cookbooks. Her shelves feature spiral-bound church recipe books and titles like “Mahalia Jackson Cooks Soul” and “A Painter’s Kitchen: Recipes From the Kitchen of Georgia O’Keeffe.” The books are history, inspiration, decor.

“They’re sort of my pride and joy,” Alabanza says.

Last year, when Alabanza moved homes in Nashville, the books became something else — a mass of heavy, oddly shaped objects that had to get from one place to another.

“It’s easy to look at them and gaze upon their beauty on a shelf, but once you have to move them, it can be a little unnerving,” she says. “I don’t think you realize how many you have until you have to move them.”

I can relate. I’m in the middle of an international move and I’ve spent more time figuring out whether and how to pack my books than I have on furniture or clothes. The books are heavy, numerous, and spotted with dust that betrays how unlikely I am to reread them. Yet I wonder how I could ever part with them. The books we own “are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal,” British author Nick Hornby wrote. This is what a book lover risks their mental and chiropractic health on. But there are ways to make moving and paring down books much easier.

Get the right boxes and pack them carefully

No matter if you’re moving books across the world or across town, you’ll need boxes.

“The key is to get the proper sized boxes, good boxes,” says Aaron Beckwith, manager of Capitol Hill Books in D.C. and a former manager at the moving company Bookstore Movers.

The right box has a heavy bottom and can be carried by one person. Alabanza used produce boxes from a restaurant. Beckwith recommends bankers boxes because they’re big enough for most books and small enough for one person to carry.

Depending on the size of your books, a bankers box could hold a dozen of them, or more than 20. When estimating how many boxes you need, it’s a good idea to round up.

“Take your initial number, and then probably double it,” says avid reader Cat Duffy (on Instagram, she’s @catreadthat), who moved into a larger home in D.C. last year. “We wanted more space partially for all the books that I own.”

Duffy’s collection ultimately filled over 45 boxes, although she was on track to need far more.

“I wasn’t packing the boxes quite as tightly in the beginning,” she says, adding that she was including scarves or other light items to take up empty space. “Then I started to realize how many boxes we were going to have, and so I went back and I repacked.” On her second go-round, Duffy focused on getting as many books into each box as possible while making sure they weren’t getting too heavy to carry.

“Obviously everyone’s going to say this, it is kind of like a Tetris thing,” Beckwith says. He recommends laying books flat and fitting others in around them to avoid too much empty space. Books shouldn’t be placed in a way that would put pressure on their spines or edges when boxes are stacked on top of each other.

Packing paper can be used in small spaces to keep things tight. For rare or fragile books, Beckwith says bubble wrap, layers of paper and mylar covers offer more protection. Once a box is full, the lid should fit securely, with minimal space underneath.

“You always want the box to be tight but not bursting or stretching the edges of the books or box,” Beckwith says. This type of packing not only reduces the number of boxes needed but also keeps books safe in transit. A flimsy paperback on its side, weak cardboard or empty space can cause boxes to collapse and books to be damaged.

Before putting books into boxes, Beckwith recommends inspecting and tidying them. “You don’t want to take dust to your new place,” he says. It’s also good to check for mold or bugs, which can destroy books — or for a beloved bookmark you forgot about.

How to get rid of books (if you must)

Checking books for damage and dust is also an opportunity to do a more existential cleaning.

“I really like packing myself because it gives you the opportunity to go through all your stuff and triage,” Duffy says.

This isn’t easy for book lovers who have spent small fortunes on collections and years reading through them. Duffy purged closets and kitchen drawers, but her shelves stayed largely intact. “I maybe got rid of five books,” she says.

“I can’t explain why books occupy this completely different space in my brain. I’ll be ruthless when it comes to going through my wardrobe,” she adds. “But books I’m like, ‘No, no, you are mine forever. I wanted you at some point. Even if I never read you again, you’re going to stay on my shelf.’”

With only so much space available in a shipping container for an international move, I had to be more discerning. I kept only books that would be hard to replace or that had sentimental value. This is how I ended up keeping George Plimpton’s history of fireworks but discarding several well-reviewed novels.

One salve for the pain of discarding books is the prospect of turning them into a few extra bucks at a used book store. Before showing up with a pile of castoffs to sell, Beckwith says it’s best to send titles and photos in advance — every local shop will have different preferences and clientele. If the store you contact doesn’t want your books, they may recommend another option. I sent a store near me a photo of my unwanted cookbooks and ended up with an offer fairly quickly.

Some larger stores, including the chain Half Price Books, accept all titles. Those that it can’t sell get donated, recycled or sold by the yard (to decorators, hotels or anyone who wants the look of a library full of books … but doesn’t want to actually read them).

The buyback price everywhere will vary based on title, edition, condition, store supply and customer demand.

“Something that was a bestseller two years ago, that everybody read, and everybody has a copy, that’s probably a book that we are oversupplied on,” says Matt Dalton, director of merchandising and training for Half Price Books.

If you’d like a spiritual reward instead of a monetary one, you might donate your books to a library or thrift store. There are also nonprofit groups that send books to people in prison, although with some restrictions.

“Books that have writing in them, books that have highlighting in them, books that have water damage, any type of water damage at all, we can’t send,” says David Reeves, a board member of the DC Books to Prisons. Many prisons ban hardbacks, too. Otherwise, Reeves says, prisoners request everything from dictionaries to thrillers to coloring books and how-to-draw guides. A local books-to-prisons organization can arrange these donations.

If you have only a few books to give away, Little Free Libraries across the country await your donation. As my move-out date neared, I strolled around my neighborhood depositing books into these, hoping someone might want a history of clutter or a collection of old “Ghost Rider” comics.

Before packing, I looked at the books I’d kept. There were more than I had hoped, but I knew they would look good and bring joy in our new home. I wondered if they were the “fullest expression of self” and went looking for that Hornby quote. I couldn’t find it. I gave away the book it’s printed in the last time I moved.

Gabe Bullard is a writer who covers culture and technology.

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