Our Reading Lives

The Best Part of Going to Open Houses is Looking at Strangers’ Bookshelves

Jen Sherman

Staff Writer

Jen is an urban and cultural geographer who did a PhD on public libraries and reading. As a researcher, her interests are focused on libraries, reading, book retailing and the book industry more broadly. As a reader, she reads a lot of crime fiction, non-fiction, and chicklit. And board books. All the board books. You can also find her writing about books for children and babies at babylibrarians.com. Instagram: shittyhousewife / babylibrarians Twitter: @jennnigan

Going to open houses and property showings is, ostensibly, about seeing if a house is suitable for you to live in and/or own. You consider things like size, layout, neighbourhood, age of appliances, potential changes and improvements you would make. This is if you are sensible about such things.

My favourite part of going to open houses and property showings, however, is actually looking at the personal touches (the things that real estate agents tell homeowners to remove or hide before a showing, ironically enough) and especially at bookshelves. In the past couple of years, I have been in a lot of strangers’ homes, and have had the chance to stickybeak* at a lot of bookshelves. These are some of my observations:

  1. Funnily enough, there haven’t actually been a LOT of bookshelves, not compared to the number of houses I’ve looked at. A lot of houses don’t have bookshelves at all. This might be because people borrow books from friends and libraries, or they buy books and then give them away because they don’t see a need to keep or collect books. Or they don’t read. These are the houses where it feels, to me, like something essential is missing.
  • The most common book scenario I’ve seen is just one or two bookshelves in the study or office. These bookshelves typically hold business or work-related books, sometimes religious or other non-fiction. There are clues to the owners’ professional lives but not really to their personalities.
  • Children’s books are more common than adult books. If the house is home to children, then there are probably at least some kids’ books around. In most houses I’ve seen where there have been other clues that children live there, there are some kids’ books too. In terms of personal reading (that is, not work-related books found in a study), I’ve seen more children’s collections than adult collections.
  • Sometimes it seems like books are used as decorations. There are houses where there are no bookshelves at all, but there are a handful of books scattered around, perhaps on a coffee table or on a side table or shelf in a bedroom. These might be books that hold special meaning, or are ones that the owner loved enough to want to keep.
  • If you find a house with a lot of bookshelves and books, they can tell you a lot about the owners. I often look for similarities between these strangers’ bookshelves and my own, as though I am searching for my book twin—that person out there with the same collection as myself. I don’t think I really expected someone out there to also have a collection of books that included crime fiction, chick lit, travel literature, popular science, books about North Korea and libraries, and the entire set of the Baby-Sitters Club, but that didn’t stop me from searching. Recently, I found the closest to my book twin as I ever had. From what I could tell, the owners of this particular house were academics who worked in the fields of sociology and philosophy, and they also read a lot beyond their professional lives: they had an extensive YA and children’s collection (including a full set of Harry Potter and a lot of Roald Dahl), travel books, a lot of Bill Bryson. I wanted to both buy their house and be their friend.

    Not only have I been to a lot of open houses and showings recently, we’ve also had our own open house and our home opened up to strangers. It made me wonder what people thought of our bookshelves, or if they even looked at the contents of our shelves (or am I the only one who thinks that checking out other people’s bookshelves is as important as checking to see if the roof leaks and the age of the water heater?).

    What about you? What do you look at/for when you enter a house for the first time? And what kinds of bookshelves do you have in your house?

    *Stickybeak is Australian for snooping. Can be used as a noun (e.g. ‘She is a stickybeak.’) or a verb (‘I’m just having a bit of a stickybeak.’)