Sea of Noise

Sun, 27 Apr 2008

Self-Storage Costs for My Book Collection

So, I'm planning to move to some as-yet-unknown city for grad school a year from now, and I'm trying to decide how aggressively to prune my book collection. After some initial pruning, I'm at 2001 books. I can probably find another dozen or two that I won't miss much, but I'm basically at the point where I have to ask myself whether the cost of storing them for five years (either in self-storage or via renting a larger apartment) exceeds their replacement cost minus whatever I can get for them at the local used book store.

400-500 of these books are part of my working library (mostly economics, math, and computing) that will need to be at hand in my home or office. But if I keep the remaining 1500-1600 they could be stored at the cheapest facility available. Climate control probably isn't necessarily, but since I'll also be storing my equally-massive LP collection (another weeding-out problem I'll face!), I'm going to assume that I'll be buying climate-controlled space that is as cheap on the margin at non-climate-controlled space. From some quick research, it looks as though long-term storage is available as cheap as $1/square foot.

Let's say that I buy an extra 25 square feet for my books. Assuming I use standard 12"x15" cardboard boxes and stack them four levels high, that's room for 80 boxes. (That might be a tight fit, but I could adjust by using some shelving to get them stacked higher than 4 boxes.)

Here's the trickiest part: how many books can I fit in each box? I happen to have eight boxes full of books right now and on average they're holding 21.625 books. (The biased nature of this sample probably underestimates the carrying capacity of the boxes for my average book, but let's go with it for now.) So this suggests that I can fit a total of 1730 books in a 5x5 self-storage space without getting into elaborate structural engineering to take full advantage of the 10 foot high ceilings some places advertise.

So, we're assuming 25 square feet at $25/month for the five years it should take to finish a Ph.D. That's $1500. Divide by 1730 books and that's about 87 cents per book. Of course, I may not fill the space completely, and there will eventually be some transportation costs to get the books to wherever I end up (as well as cost of capital). I think I can ignore the integer problem, even though technically it means the cost of storage may be zero at the margin. Let's call it $1/book--maybe half that for small paperbacks and twice or more for stuff like atlases.

From one angle, that's a pretty low number. From another, it seems profligate. I suppose the truth is somewhere in between. Certainly, looking at the lifetime cost of holding onto a book, owning some of those cheap sci-fi paperbacks or Dilbert cartoon collections doesn't seem worthwhile. And, while I do re-read many of my books and tend to have broad and obscure tastes not always well-served by the local library, the existence of a thick market for used books via the Internet makes it seem like a distributed peer-to-peer library. Many books--even some that are out-of-print--can be had for a penny plus $3.99 shipping. And, of course, most of these books would net me at least a token amount if I sold them.

It seems that if I'm not sure I'll still want to own a given book five years from now, or if it's one whose price will continue to fall over the next five years, I might as well sell it or give it away. On the other hand, an obscure and/or rare book is well worth the $1 it will cost to store. In the end, I'm not sure how much this analysis really helps: it makes it easier to let go of some books, but it still leaves hundreds in the grey, fat margin of uncertainty.

I guess the next step is to cull some books and get used to the idea of having less stuff. Maybe the real cost of having so much stuff has nothing to do with the price of self-storage?

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