Outdoor Storage of Books

We became interested in the outdoor storage of books when we purchased a library of 1500 boxes. We made the purchase on Friday and had to have the books out of every room of a double apartment by Monday. The books were interesting–books on theological studies formed the bulk of the purchase, with books on erotica in second place. The actual move began at 9:00 Monday morning and ended at 10:00 that night, mostly non-stop, involving one person from the store and three really hard working movers (Kazakhstanis– (646) 881-8277 should be their current number–highly recommended, we use them all the time). The movers actually stated that they had never seen so many boxes or books ever. They filled an 18 foot long box truck, and we still had to make several trips back early Tuesday morning with a minivan.

We have never turned down good books for any reason, so the immediate question was how to store such a purchase. This is Manhattan, and there are a lot of storage options available, but at a steep price. We would have been looking at a fee of at least a thousand a month, and we learned a long time ago to avoid storage units at all costs. Somebody’s basement would have been an option, but cellar security is bad, and we have discovered that books, even boxed, should be rotated out of basement storage every 9 to 12 months, which is about the time that a mildew smell can begin to be detected. Plus getting up and downstairs, ducking, and then there is always Hurricane Sandy, which hadn’t happened at the time but if everyone keeps driving SUV’s will certainly happen again.

On Saturday morning we went over to Home Depot in Brooklyn and had the largest Rubbermaid storage unit, in three boxes, fork-lifted onto the top of our mini-van. This super sagging vehicle, after stops along the BQE to check for shifting, made it back to the store. We dragged the boxes through the store and into the back yard, and on Sunday we proceeded to assemble this monster. Fortunately, Janie Harari, on the store’s board of directors, can do anything with her hands. She now has her own lathe and grinder and has an engineering degree (as of 2015) from the most hands on gender neutral engineering program in the country, Olin College of Engineering. Besides, Janie is a beautiful person. In this case she volunteered to assemble the shed with the help of her friend Crystal and also an employee, whose job in this case was to follow Janie’s orders (added expletives and all) to hold up sides, etc.

Perhaps a bit over one third of this book shipment fit into the Rubbermaid, situated on the back portion of the East Village Books lot. After closing the doors for which we knew would be a prolonged period of time, we laid a heavy vinyl tarp (which was actually the awning from our previous bookstore location) on the ground in front of the shed. This tarp would remain impervious to weather and rocks for the duration of the storage. On top of this we laid a full size blue tarp, which had an extra 5 feet or so all around. We put the next 400 or so boxes in an efficient pattern and stacked them as high as they would go. We then strung ropes through the eyelets and tied them at the top so that the books were enveloped kind of like a hamentaschen (thanks to our Jewish friends for this simile). Then we placed another tarp over the whole thing and roped and weighted this down with concrete blocks. The rest of the books went into a pre-existing smaller storage shed (which is to this day non-climate controlled, requiring books to be circulated through an an annual basis at the most), or they were shoved into every remaining nook and cranny of the store. We shook hands with the movers and gave them a large hard-earned tip (if you use them be prepared to negotiate a good tip at the end–it is worth it if you have had experience with bad movers).

Thus began our odyssey with learning how to store books outdoors.
The tarped books were on the ground for approximately 9 months before we finished processing them and could move to the ones in the sheds. During this time, which included a winter and spring, we lost only a half a box, and that was only because someone did not properly re-tarp after removing a box from the snow covering. Eventually we finished processing all of the books and were left with a very large empty Rubbermaid shed. This would in time become the place where we kept our mail order books. The smaller (non-climate controlled) shed and kiosks would house only bargain books.

Over the years we have always had books for sale in outdoor kiosks. In the original store (101 St Marks) we had an awning on the sidewalk extension, over permanent shelving that Eastern Europeans carpenters constructed for us. We nailed aluminum sheeting over the backs of these book cases, and that held up well against the elements for the 10 years the store was in that location (relatively well, since we did not at that time fully understand the technical aspects of maintaining books outside. In our new location, (99 Saint Marks, for over 12 years), we constructed the shelving not out in front on the sidewalk but in back, attached to the store, in what we called the garden (see the photo on our website main page).  To follow this we will refer to the three parts of the garden–the kiosks, an empty walk area where that tarping was and the Rubbermaid shed furthest in back. If you are wondering about the old smaller shed, it is just to the right of the kiosks, and these two areas are covered by a common plastic corrugated roof that a local very handyman and friend John Tomasello constructed.

So we have several book storage areas to discuss in relation to the weather. The first was addressed by the on-ground tarping. It is our opinion that books can be kept in the manner we described, in boxes (fortunately for us, considering the moving time constraints, this book hoarder had kept everything in boxes), for up to two years on bare outdoor ground. Most problems are counter-acted by the double layer of protection; i.e. the cardboard boxes and the plastic tarps. Most of the condensation runs off the tarps onto the ground. Further, there is natural circulation outside, so the mildew effect that would be present in the basement is much less a problem outside. However, we feel that after two years the mildew would catch up to you if you are relying on this method. So plan to have a plan after this period of time.

Regarding the books in the small old shed, there is the double layer of protection, from the cardboard boxes and the shed. This is not a basement, but neither is there the free flow of air as in the outdoor books, as the shed tends to be significantly more airtight than the tarps. We only ever had one problem in this small shed, and that is because a bit of water got in one bottom seam. It rendered a few cardboard boxes mildewy where there was direct contact, but the books inside were only moderately affected, and these were bargain books. To solve this problem we first used “great stuff” spray sealer, then laid a single contractor bag over the area where the water came in, and that seemed to solve it. But this event reminded us of the fact that you can’t just put books and paper outside and forget about it.

The situation with the books in the kiosks/outdoor shelving is more complicated. 359 days of the year in New York City there is no problem. These books are culled on a rotating basis so that no book stays outside for more than 6 months. That is probably the most important concept. Even if there is weather abuse, which there is, the books do not have a chance to mildew. These are our bargain books–not bad books mind you, but low priced. Unlike the bargain books at Barnes and Noble, they tend to be not bargain press fluff, but they are often too specialized for the store, or they are, for example, fiction writers who were in vogue two years ago ( or 100 years ago) but are still highly respected in literary circles. Still, they are priced low enough that they do not often sit too long, usually not for the six month maximum.

Weather events on the other five or six days of the year lead into the technical aspect of this paper. There is something in the regular weather reports which you probably ignore called the dew point. Dew is something that forms on the ground in the morning when the cold night air descends upon the previous day’s warmth. Or it forms on the side of your beer glass in the bar, and you might have had a deep discussion with your bar mate about why your glass is wet. You might have gotten it right that the contents inside are cold relative to the warmth of the bar, a room that has a certain amount of humidity associated with it–the source of the dew. Nobody probably mentioned dew point, but the definition is: the atmospheric temperature (varying according to pressure and humidity) below which water droplets begin to condense and dew can form. Our observation over the years that occasionally the kisosk books got dew/wet on all the exposed surfaces led us into the study of why and when this happens. When exactly is a better description of our quest, because if we wake up at home in the middle of the night and it is raining we wanted to know if condensation was forming on our books (usually not). This would lead to a sleepless night because of the possibility that some of the books would need to be tossed and others would have to be reduced in price (heaven forbid).

Most of the time that rain is falling the kiosk books, under corrugated awning, are dry. We will further tell you that sometimes it is not raining and yet the books are condensing. So when exactly does the problem happen? Go to your favorite weather website. You will see that usually the dew point number is lower, much lower usually than the temperature. Right now the outside temperature is 68 degrees. The sun is out, a nice breeze is blowing. The dew point is 37 degrees. That dew point would have to come up to 68 degrees for the air to be saturated to the point where it could no longer hold water and things would start to condense. That is not going to happen today, unless a front moved in with a lot of moisture. (BTW FYI, the temperature by definition cannot drop below the dewpoint, since this is where the condensing begins).

So you might tell us: wake all the way up in the middle of the night and go to weather underground and see if the dew point and temperature are the same number. Sometimes you would be right, but sometimes the numbers would match and the books would remain dry. There is one more factor that has to be considered, and this is true on those six days of the year. The answer is not even humidity, which can be important, but previous temperature. What was the temperature over not only the last 24 hours, but how has it been trending over the past several days or week. BECAUSE THOSE BOOKS ARE A CERTAIN TEMPERATURE BASED ON THIS. If it is warm now and has been warm all along the books are warm. If the books are cold because it has been cold and a warm air mass comes in ladened with moisture, presto you’ve got moisture on all the exposed surfaces. The obverse is not true–if the books are warm and a cold hard rain comes in you do not get the condensation. That is because a cold mass is lower in humidity, like how snow is dry, or how the condensation on a glass of ice cubes forms only on the outside–try it.

The takeaway is that if it has been cold outside and a warm rain begins, take caution. Even dew point is unreliable as an absolute predictor in this situation.

So the remaining questions are what to do when the problem occurs and what about the big Rubbermaid shed. The second issue is easier to address. The Rubbermaid is wired and has a dehumidifier. The great thing is that we only need to run this dehumidifier those few days a year. Consider your climate controlled storage companies and how much money they waste keeping heat and or dehumidification going all the time, probably more out of a desire to cater to customer perception than ignorance. We have never had a problem with our books. We keep a canary so to speak in our shed. This is a piece of thin cardboard. We monitor its integrity, and that tells us if we are keeping the humidity where it belongs. Also, our Helmut Newton Sumo pictures are stored there, and they look no different from the day they went in there five years ago. So far, since we figured out the weather, we have had zero problems in the big shed.

The one problem that we have is with our kiosk books, and we have been able to deal with this somewhat, with proper attention. When the dew point/temp/humidity/book temperature are at suspect levels of perfect storm, we open the back door of our store, which opens directly into the kiosks. We close the roll-down sheeting at the back of the kiosks. Our store has wood floors and wood shelving. We refer to this large amount of material as a dry sink. It will “transfer its dryness” to the kiosk for some time, unless the wet weather persists, at which time the wood is also saturated. We also put a box fan blowing on the kiosk area, with a space heater in front of the fan. A phenomenon which we have noticed is that the first books to condense are the top shelf on the west side nearest the outside tarp opening. Why west and top we are not sure, but if you are using this article as a reference you might look for which part of your books is acting as this “canary.” This is also the last area to dry, either by our efforts or that of mother nature.

One last item, we have tried the Pingi dehumidifier silica packs. We put three medium ones on a narrow shelving unit in the old shed, along with graphic novels. We enclosed this shelving with contractor bag sheeting and tape. The performance was not bad, considering this is passive dehumidification. The only problem is that the packs need to be removed either every two weeks or after a moisture event of any significant kind and put in the microwave to recharge. This is not a bad option to consider for a short term, although we used the system for about a year. The comics were not in boxes like the other books in the shed, but without the Pingi’s, they would pick up moisture just as fast as the books in the kiosks.

Answers.com suggests plastic tubs and silica for shed storage, but you can probably help the earth a little by using cardboard boxes instead. If you are using silica packs, they will have to be recharged no matter what.

Good luck everyone, thanks for reading, and if you have something to contribute let us know.