For Safekeeping

Let’s talk book safes.

A book safe is a box shaped like a book, which you can hide things inside and then tuck away on a shelf with your other books. They come in two basic varieties: boxes made to look like books and books which have had their innards carved out to make a boxlike space. (Check out the display of these at the A.C. McClurg Bookstore on the first floor of the Newberry.)  Depending on the skill of construction, either will do the job for you, with only two basic drawbacks.

The first is that burglars know about book safes. So a good housebreaker will generally have a look across your shelves for something that looks obviously wrong. Your cure for this is to get a book safe that doesn’t look obviously wrong. This means don’t buy a book safe carved out of a Danielle Steel novel if everything else on your shelves is military fiction a la Tom Clancy. Similarly, that Reader’s Digest Condensed Book smack in the middle of your collection of eighteenth century plays is going to stand right out.

The second problem, of course, is that if the book safe blends into your collection, either you will forget it’s there, or you will die and somebody else will package up all your books and send them to me, never knowing about the gold doubloons and triploons you had hidden inside that copy of Think and Grow Rich.

Over the years, the Newberry Library Book Fair has had about two dozen book safes donated. More than half of these were empty. One contained road maps; the owner had used it as an extension of her glove compartment. Another contained extra car and house keys, for emergencies. The others had been used as jewelry boxes, sometimes sentimental old stuff (ID pins from the 40s, class rings, etc., that hadn’t so much been put there to hide them as to get them out of the way), sometimes tangled costume jewelry. And once, it was the real thing: pearls, gold, an emerald, the good stuff.

So I’m going to make a few minor suggestions. Obviously, it does no good to post a message to yourself–“The doubloons are in that copy of Clout on the third shelf in the living room”–because some burglars can read. Putting a little sticker on the spine saying “Here be diamonds” also defeats the purpose.  But you can mention it in your will, in case you slip away before the books do. You can also tuck a note into the book safe itself, either a long story about how each piece of jewelry matters to you (this gives me something to read on rainy afternoons at the Book fair) or just your Name and Address. Even if you have shuffled off this mortal coil, it gives us a good step up in finding your next-of-kin. Yeah, I know your next-of-kin should have the brains to think “Why is this book rattling?” but they don’t always. These two steps alone will save us both a lot of trouble. You don’t REALLY want me selling all those letters you got from Marilyn Monroe, do you?

By the way, the book safe with the genuine jewelry in it did get to the rightful owner, but I can take no credit for this. We were trying to trace a name engraved on one tiny piece of jewelry and having no luck when the owner walked in and said, “Did I turn in a book with jewelry inside? I’ve always told my kids to check inside books before they give any away, and I think I….”

A happy ending all around: she got her baubles back and I was not torn apart by the four people who each wanted to buy the pearls.

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