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New Times / News

The following article was posted on June 25th, 2014, in the New Times - Volume 28, Issue 48 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [] - Volume 28, Issue 48

Shelf awareness: Is cutting down on clutter by clearing out books a novel idea?


"Do you know that books smell like nutmeg or some spice from a foreign land?"

Ray Bradbury wrote that into his 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, putting his words--as authors do--into one of his character’s mouths.

“I loved to smell them when I was a boy,” Bradbury wrote. “Lord, there were a lot of lovely books once, before we let them go.”

Letting them go, in this case, meant censoring them by the application of fire. Bradbury’s novel about a future society that criminalizes ownership of idea-encouraging books is clearly a love letter to what people can accomplish when they put ink to a page. Books are important because of what they contain, but they are also obviously physical objects that take up space. They weigh so much, and collect dust, and are used—as unique, individual objects—infrequently. Sometimes just once.

My 5- and 7-year-old daughters recently noticed me huffing a tattered copy of Little Women. I’ve been reading it to them at bedtime, and one night in early June, while searching for our page, I buried my nose up to the binding and inhaled deeply. They looked at me like I was crazy and giggled with confusion—until I encouraged them to do the same.


I have some autographed copies of Bradbury’s more famous titles. He’s my favorite author, and I enjoyed meeting him in Santa Barbara a few years before we lost him and the stories he had yet to write. I have a connection to his work, which is why I cling tightly to books that bear his name.

Contain yourself
Serena Paulus owns Serene Spaces, through which she helps people get organized. She offers free consultations to determine what’s under, around, and causing clutter in your life. Want to hire her once you see what she can do? She charges $35 an hour, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and $45 an hour for Saturdays and after 5 p.m. Her service area includes North County (Atascadero, Paso Robles, Santa Margarita, San Miguel), North Coast (San Simeon, Cambria, Cayucos, Morro Bay, Los Osos), and South Coast (Avila Beach, Shell Beach, Pismo Beach, Arroyo Grande, Nipomo, Oceano, Grover Beach). For more information, visit or call 550-9348.

But what about all those other books I own? The ones by other authors? The ones that sit two-deep on the shelves in my bedroom? The ones that make my wife huff with frustration when she rolls over in bed to see what time it is and finds the clock obscured behind a literal wall? The ones that my children sometimes trip over at night when they make their way to my side of the bed in the dark, looking for a cup of water or a soothing touch to chase nightmares away? The ones in the boxes above my clothes in my closet? In my wife’s closet? In the garage? Loose around the house?

I can say with confidence that if you were to visit our home, you would find books on every available surface—excluding bathroom counters (most of the time), because counters tend to get wet, and water and books don’t mix. There are books on the kitchen counter (opposite from the sink, where it’s safer), my work desk, my piano, our dining room table, the mantel, the shelves in the entryway, the buffet, the arms of the futon, the TV stand, the stairs.

I could not imagine getting rid of any of them. Maybe one or two, but only the crummy ones.

Serena Paulus is a professional organizer, and if anybody were to change my mind, it would be her.

“Why are we keeping all these books?” she asked me somewhat rhetorically when I contacted her to hear what she had to say about organization.

The answer seems obvious to me. They’re books.

Paulus tackles living spaces in San Luis Obispo County, from kitchens to closets, garages to home offices. She’s run Serene Spaces for 3 1/2 years, and in her organizational efforts, she said it’s not uncommon for her to come into a client’s home to find “bookshelves and bookshelves and bookshelves of books.”

If there’s a sentimental reason for holding onto a copy—like my Bradbury books, for instance—she gets that. But if it’s a one-time deal, a single-use blast through the latest best-seller or whatever, keeping the book around becomes more akin to storage. If the likelihood of someone going back to read a novel again is slim to none, she suggests freeing up the space it occupies. You could, of course, drop by the nearest used book store and angle for some cash or credit, but Paulus prefers making donations to the library.

That way, she explained, “other people can be reading that book while you’re not reading it”—a sentiment with which it’s difficult to argue, considering it’s the exact opposite of a destructive excision. In such a case, de-cluttering grows from an act of bringing serenity to your home into a service to the community at large.

And if you ever discover that you actually do want to read that book again after you’ve given it away, you can check it out from the library for free.

So how do you actually pull that book-donating trigger? Paulus recommends affixing a sticky note to the inside cover of your books, then setting a number of times you’ll read the book before donating it.

Each time you pass through its pages, you make a hatch mark on the note. When you hit the limit, you pass the book on to educate and entertain others.

“You can open up that book and say, ‘Gosh, I’ve already this three times,’” she said. “‘I can let it go.’”

Paulus has grown children now, and she said they’re voracious readers, going through hundreds of titles a year. When they were little, she set a five- or six-time rule for books, after which they went to the library.

“It kept a fluid movement through our house,” she explained, noting that this method ensures a steady influx of new information.

“It brings more joy for you to bring in new books,” she added later.


The idea can be modified and applied to just about any aspect of life that breeds clutter: clothes in closets, kitchen utensils, and walls of DVDs.

“Organizing is kind of learning new processes and sticking with it,” Paulus said. “Organizing is having limiting containers. If you have a bookshelf that only holds 100 books, but you have 200 books in your home, you have to get another bookshelf or get rid of 100 books. You can’t have 100 books on your carpet.”

That’s where she lost me again. You can, in fact, have 100 books on your carpet. I know this firsthand.

I must admit that as much as I was expecting to not be swayed by any argument in favor of allowing books to leave my home, Paulus makes some pretty solid points. If I want to bring in a new book, I should hand off an old book or two so that other people can read them—and the new book has a home.

Paulus also recommends e-readers, which can store whole libraries that collectively take up no more space than a single volume as slim as a Kindle or iPad.

They don’t smell like nutmeg, though.


Contact Executive Editor Ryan Miller at