Former Strafford book collector looks to re-home 17,000 volumes

Lois Jackson, a book dealer from Bradford, Vt., sorts through Bruce MacPhail's collection of 17,000 books on Tuesday, June 13, 2023, in Strafford, Vt.  After dealers sift through the books, the public is welcome to come help themselves Thursday through Sunday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Lois Jackson, a book dealer from Bradford, Vt., sorts through Bruce MacPhail's collection of 17,000 books on Tuesday, June 13, 2023, in Strafford, Vt. After dealers sift through the books, the public is welcome to come help themselves Thursday through Sunday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Just a few books from Bruce MacPhail's 17,000 collection sit on a shelf in Strafford, Vt., on Tuesday, June 13, 2023. White slips of paper indicate first editions or signed copies of these Zane Gray novels. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Just a few books from Bruce MacPhail's 17,000 collection sit on a shelf in Strafford, Vt., on Tuesday, June 13, 2023. White slips of paper indicate first editions or signed copies of these Zane Gray novels. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

Tucked into a corner is a comfortable chair and the list of categories of Bruce MacPhail's 17,000 book collection in Strafford, Vt., on Tuesday, June 13, 2023. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Tucked into a corner is a comfortable chair and the list of categories of Bruce MacPhail's 17,000 book collection in Strafford, Vt., on Tuesday, June 13, 2023. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

When Bruce MacPhail moved to Massachusetts, in 2000, he left most of his collection in South Strafford, Vt. It’s still there, around 17,000 volumes. (Courtesy photograph)

When Bruce MacPhail moved to Massachusetts, in 2000, he left most of his collection in South Strafford, Vt. It’s still there, around 17,000 volumes. (Courtesy photograph) —

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-13-2023 5:24 PM

SOUTH STRAFFORD — A collection of books is a big impediment to moving.

When Bruce MacPhail moved to Massachusetts, in 2000, he left most of his collection in South Strafford. It’s still there, around 17,000 volumes.

Now in his 80s and having sold the property, MacPhail needs to move those books. So far, it’s been a struggle. Books that aren’t out by this weekend are bound for the landfill, he said.

“My goal is to have as many of the books as possible survive,” MacPhail said in a phone interview.

To that end, MacPhail plans to open his book storage at 17 Willey Road in South Strafford from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday to people who want to look through and take books.

That’s right. Free books.

At the start of the week, a few book dealers visited and each took away a couple hundred books. That’s barely a dent in MacPhail’s collection. By comparison, Strafford’s Morrill Memorial and Harris Library houses around 9,500 books, according to its website.

“The first time I walked in there my jaw just dropped,” Lois Jackson, a book dealer based in Bradford, Vt., said. Working with MacPhail, she has shepherded book dealers through the collection and has taken some for her own shop.

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Books remain the most ubiquitous form of cultural transmission, with millions more of them arriving on shelves each year. Collectors generally find a niche within the great mass of books, seeking out first editions of classic American novels or books by Vermont publishers or works from a particular author or time period or subject.

Not Bruce MacPhail. He picked up books that interested him, but also books that were orphaned.

“I saw myself very much as a custodian of books, a saver and preserver, especially as libraries began to discard any book that had not been checked out within a year,” MacPhail said in an email. “Therefore my collection was very much a snapshot of publishing history and will be impossible to duplicate, even should someone wish to.”

MacPhail’s interest in books dates to his childhood among bookish parents. His father was in the foreign service, and MacPhail grew up around Washington D.C. His father was posted to France, and MacPhail was sent to Kimball Union Academy in Meriden for high school. MacPhail graduated from Dartmouth College in 1966 with a degree in English.

“After I got out of college, I don’t think I touched a book for six years,” he said. “I think I’d just had a surfeit of them.” He worked as a carpenter and fine woodworker.

He collected mainly at library book sales, but also at bookshops. He collected everything, but kept an eye out for books on maritime subjects. He recently donated around 600 volumes to the Northeast Maritime Institute, in Fairhaven, Mass., not far from where he now lives.

The collection contains works by Dartmouth authors, including Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and Noel Perrin. It also contains a lot of farming how-to books from the 19th and 20th centuries, a large collection of cookbooks, including the homemade books put together by churches, and a lot of children’s books.

But there’s more. In a list he sent to the Valley News, he refers to the quantities of books by the number of feet taken up on the shelves. Seventy feet of biography; 208 feet of fiction; 60 feet of history, all the way down to a mere 5 feet on mountaineering.

There’s also 24 feet of shelving devoted to 33 rpm records and 12 feet to 78 rpm records. And there are 45s and cassettes, too.

MacPhail’s effort to disperse the collection has run into obstacles. The organizers of the annual Five College Book Sale had planned to send a truck, but the gravel road was too muddy this spring and the organizers don’t have space to store so many books until next spring’s sale.

Real estate agent Darren Sherburne contacted Lois Jackson, who “got enthusiastic about it,” MacPhail said.

“It’s just such a rich assortment of books,” Jackson said. They include an old family Bible, the kind of book that contains not only gospels and psalms but family records of births and deaths from long ago.

“I shudder to think that’s going to get pulped,” she said.

After this weekend, that’s exactly what’s going to happen to the books that don’t find homes.

Look for the signs that say “Free Books.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.