A Collector Left a 70,000 Book Collection with No Instructions on How to Proceed
- by Michael Stillman
The attic of Bruno Schroder's Library/Home (Daniel Winkelkoote image).
It is not the largest book collection ever amassed by a private owner. It does not equal the 100,000 book and manuscript collection of 19th century obsessive Thomas Phillipps. Nor, obviously, does it match the 300,000 books amassed by the late fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. There is no need to compare it with those of the two individuals who have claimed the largest collections, John Q. Benham of Avoca, Indiana, and Anke Gowda of India. They both estimate (at this level you can only estimate) collections of 1.5 million books. Bruno Schroder's collection of 70,000 books may not be the largest, but there haven't been too many larger private ones either.
Bruno Schroder was a mining engineer in the small German town of Mettingen. He spent much of his working life underground. Above ground, it was spent with books. His wife's legally appointed caretaker described him as a very reserved man. Few people in his hometown knew anything about his book collection. Schroder's home is an inconspicuous one, perhaps even somewhat worn-looking from outside. Inside, it is a wonderland of books, amassed over his long lifetime, Schroder died last year at the age of 88.
One notable feature about Schroder is that he was no Phillipps, with books strewn in piles all over the house. Nor did he have the money of a Lagerfeld to have storage professionally built. Schroder was a handy man and built the bookshelves with his own hands. Virtually every room was filled with books. Add the cellar and the attic to that. As the photo shows, he even built shelves into the attic's sloped ceiling to house his books. His home was neat, despite all the books. You could describe it as a library, except no one but the librarian ever went there and he could not possibly have read more than a small fraction of the books.
Schroder bought most of his books from the local bookstore. The proprietor described him as his best customer. No surprise there. He might buy 10-20 books a week. The subjects were varied and they might be hard or soft cover. The only place he drew a line was with romance novels. He didn't like them. What motivated his collecting interests is unknown. He did not explain himself, not even to his bookseller. Whatever it was, it enabled him to build a very attractive library but not a valuable one. That clearly did not matter to him. He must have simply loved the look of his books.
When the time came for his wife to move to a retirement home, her doctor and caregiver tried to convince Schroder to join her. He declined. He wanted to stay with his books. That was where they found him one morning. A care team checking up on him found Schroder on the floor in the hallway of his house, his books watching over him.
What is to become of his collection? Like his motivation, that is unknown as of this writing. Unlike most aging collectors who struggle to decide what to do with their books, it must not have concerned him. Schroder left no instructions as to what he wished to be done. His wife is not able to direct the task. They had no children and apparently there are no close relatives. Her caretaker is managing the estate but finding a home for the books is not easy. She did get one dealer to make an offer of €7,000 (US $7,700), but the dealer backed out. No other offers have been forthcoming. Many of the books are essentially of no value and will simply have to be disposed of. She has even expressed a willingness to give them away to anyone who wants them, but so far there have been no takers. It is sad because if they were valuable there might be a library that would take them, even if only to cherry pick the best and turn the others over to a library sale. At least there would be something remaining of what Schroder devoted a large part of his life to collecting. Sadly, it looks like a lifetime of love and work will disappear in short order, leaving no trace of the man or his work.
Daniel Winkelkoote of WDR has created a short video of Schroder's magnificent library/collection. It is easily worth the 37 seconds it takes to tour his home. Click here.