Like many book lovers and collectors, Gary Hoover (born 1951) is a brilliant polymath with a boundless passion for books and learning. Before we get to his library, let’s get a bit of background. In the early 1980s, Hoover established Bookstop, Inc., a chain of bookstores, based in Austin, Texas, that became the fourth-largest bookselling company in America. In 1989, Barnes & Noble purchased Bookshop for $41.5 million and gradually converted most of the Bookstops and Bookstars into B&N branded stores. A year later, Hoover established Hoover’s Inc., one of the world’s largest sources of information about companies. In 2003, Dun & Bradstreet purchased the company for $117 million. From 2009-10, Hoover was the first Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. He continues to teach entrepreneurial thinking and other courses through the Hoover Academy and his website, Hooversworld.com. He has traveled around the world to deliver talks about how great companies are built to Fortune 500 executives, trade associations, entrepreneurs, and high school and college students.
Now, let’s turn to his books and amazing library. Hoover has been collecting books since he was seven years old. His love affair for books and ideas began with the purchase of a single reference book: a Rand McNally World Atlas that cost about a dollar. Hoover states: “The durability, affordability, compactness, and pure joy of books captured me at an early age and has never let go. It really is an addiction!” Fast forward six decades, and Hoover’s collection of reference books, supported by his success in business, has grown to more than 57,000 books, taking up an entire 6,600 square foot building. It is, perhaps, one of the largest personal reference libraries in America. In an exclusive interview with Bookshelf, Hoover graciously shares his passion for books and learning, and provides a glimpse of what it is like to not only build such an incredible library, a cathedral of ideas, as it were — but to live in it, interact with it, and be inspired by it on a daily basis. It is a testament to one man’s commitment to the life of the mind, each book a portal to a new world of discovery, driven by an insatiable curiosity and youthful sense of wonder. Hoover’s library serves as a constant wellspring for intellectual growth as well as new business ideas. But what separates Hoover from many book collectors is his profound sense of obligation that he must share with the world whatever wisdom these books whisper to him. Moreover, one is struck by the humility of his mission — Hoover understands that he really doesn’t own these books, but is merely a steward for their collection and preservation to be entrusted to the next generation of book lovers. And for that we are all grateful.
Without further ado, let us turn to the interview.
Tell us about your epiphany to become a book collector and what was your first book
On family trips as a kid, I got hold of the maps and became the “navigator.” By the time I was 16, on a trip to Europe – a big deal at the time – I led the family through the cities. And in school I loved social studies. When I was about 7, I had an allowance to buy a book on a trip to St Louis. In a department store there, I bought my first world atlas. I think it was a dollar, and I still have it: Rand McNally World Atlas (1958). I was mesmerized by the maps, and the amount of information they conveyed — and decades later, I still am. Within a year or two, I got my parents to sign up for one of those old ads in magazines where you got something like three books for $1 each if you subscribed to a new book a month. When I saw better atlases in such an ad, I went straight to my parents. I soon added more Rand McNally and Hammond Atlases. I also spent a huge amount of time with the Rand McNally U.S. Road Atlas, which of course my dad, a traveling salesman, already had. Over the years, I have bought thousands of atlases in 45 countries and continue to add to them to my library. They are the core of my collection. I am also a data junkie, and started devouring the World Almanac when I was 8 years old. I have every edition since 1959, and some older ones. The durability, affordability, compactness, and pure joy of books captured me at an early age and has never let go. It really is an addiction!
When and why did you decide to focus on reference books?
I want to understand the world as best I can. I do this through data and facts, with less emphasis on the interpretation of others. Pretty much everything fascinates me, and I pick up several new interests each year. I want to know the history and context of each subject, get the big picture and understand it, as well as getting into the details.
How many books in your collection?
My best estimate is 57,000, but it is higher now. I also have tens of thousands of pieces of ephemera – paper maps, road maps, travel brochures, airline and railroad timetables, company publications, annual reports, and tons and tons of magazines.
Where do you store your collection?
At the beginning of 2017, I purchased a 6,600 square foot building that had served as a community health clinic in the historic downtown of an old railroad town, Flatonia, Texas (population 1,400, about an hour’s drive from Austin). The building had been vacant for a few years and was very affordable. I spent two to three months figuring out how to fit all 190+ bookcases and 57,000+ books into the 30 or so small exam rooms, each of which was assigned a subject; however, some subjects required multiple rooms. There are also three long hallways lined with bookcases. I hired a team of seven individuals to move the books, working six days a week for about six weeks. The move cost about $40,000. We rented our own truck and bought 2000 boxes, most of which were reused as we packed and unpacked them. Now that I am settled in, I continue to acquire books. There are some places where I have to turn sideways to walk through the place. I have three areas where I read (I generally read about 10 books at a time), but am surrounded by stacks of books on all sides. One of the rooms is my bedroom, another room functions as a partial kitchen, and there are four bathrooms.
How do you keep track of your library? Do you use any sort of database?
I don’t enter the books in a database. I keep all the information in my head. As a former bookseller, I remember books by their size, shape, and color, and their covers. However, I suppose I have two or more copies of some 200 titles. When I place an order for what I think is a new book, Amazon sometimes indicates “you bought this X years ago.” But I am pretty good at remembering what I have.
How are the books shelved according to author, title, size, etc. in each room?
I am not yet organized at that detailed a level. I have only been here three years! But I go through them so often that I remember where many of them are. Over time they will be organized by subcategory, such as early history, GM, Ford, Chrysler, British cars, Japanese cars, etc., in the two automobile rooms.
How do you go about finding a specific book in such an extensive collection?
I am very familiar with the books on each subject. I am usually pretty fast at it, though I still have a few thousand books in the boxes from the last move. All the boxes are labelled by subject. We got the most important books up on the shelves.
On average, how many books do you acquire each year?
That has varied widely. I became a millionaire about 1990 and peaked at spending $40,000 per year but now it is down under $10,000, after I lost my money on yet another venture. I buy lots of used books and am an expert at finding the best copy at the best price. In the last month I have probably bought 40 books.
What is your long-term goal for your library? How many volumes would you like to add? How much room do you have for expansion?
I am out of room but that does not stop me, I can always stumble through more stacks. I add books based on my interests, both new interests and new books I discover in old interests, including much older books I did not know about. I have some that were written over 100 years ago on the way to me now. I have about 40,000 books on my Amazon wish list. When I pass away, my library will become a used bookstore and the proceeds will go to a list of non-profit organizations, led by my beloved University of Chicago.
How do you decide what books to purchase?
I try to maintain good libraries in the subject areas closest to my heart – atlases, big reference sets, music, geography, the social sciences, history, railroads, cars, airlines, business history, retailing, any definitive book on any subject, almanacs, thesauri, etc. Before buying a book, or putting it on my wish list, I work “look inside” hard, especially the index but sometimes spend 15 minutes on many pages. I just got a book on a subject of interest, cheap used. It had no “look inside”. It arrived today, I did a 3 minute glance and index check, it is a bomb by my standards. Had I seen the index, I would not have bought it.
How important is the condition of books that you purchase? For example, when you purchase used books, do you care if they are in excellent condition? Would you purchase a book in really poor condition, if it was the only one available?
I work hard to find the best copy from the best dealer at the best price. You can tell from their description of the book whether they have looked at it or not. I don’t purchase a book if the listing states: “some books may contain highlighting.” But some sources like Half Price Books and Better World Books, even with stock descriptions, reliably ship books that are in good condition. Others think “substantial markings” are “good” and I do not buy from them. I avoid any seller with a rating below 96% if I can. But if there is only one copy for sale and I really want the book, I will break my rules. However, I rarely have to resort to “acceptable” books.
Do you ever write notes in your books?
Rarely. The only time I write in the book is if I find an error, because I want them to be useful to future owners. But I bookmark key charts, tables, and data, interesting chapters, etc. I use small sheets of origami paper. It does not bleed colors. It is thin and does not bend the book. I have books with up to maybe 25 such pagemarkers in them. They are never removed.
How many hours do you spend each week searching for new titles and adding them to your wish list?
A good bibliography, or detailed footnotes, can lead me on a one hour chase on Abebooks and Amazon, adding to my basket (unpurchased) on the former and wish list on the latter. But in general, I spend about six hours a week on that.
When you are researching a particular topic, how many books do you typically pull from your library? Do you have a conference room or table where you can place them and refer to them all at once?
Books are everywhere. The most recent subjects I am reading are in my bedroom and in what was supposed to be a conference room which has a giant table. I am looking at the subject of the day or subject of the week. The bedroom probably has 250 books stacked up, the conference room has an equal number, and my office with my computer about the same. Unfortunately I get way behind on putting the books back where they belong, as I have already moved on to the next subject; I have little patience for “housework.”
Have you ever purchased a school or book collector’s entire library?
No, but have looked through some and picked up quite a few books.
Every book collector keeps a wish list. How many books are on your wish list? What are a few titles at the top of that list?
My Amazon wish list, containing 40,000 books, is not prioritized but I search it often by subject.
Are you a completist (in other words, if you find a book by an author, do you try to collect every book written by that author)?
Yes, often. Of course, nonfiction and reference books follow a different author pattern from literature and fiction. Authors die and new people take over the reins of new editions of the classics.
Walk us through the process of acquiring a new book. It arrives at your doorstep in a box, you open the box. What happens next?
It depends. If I just acquired a company history, I scan it fast to see how good it is, set it aside or shelve it with related books. If it is a hot topic that I am studying right now, I spend more time on it, and add to a stack of related books. Later that night, I may go deeper. I am presently “reading” 5 math books, going back and forth among them.
Generally, you cannot really “read” a reference book, but you have come up with a wonderful way to distill a reference book. Can you tell us about that process?
I spend a lot of time reviewing the index! If it is an alphabetical book, I look up favorite topics or things I want to know about, and follow the trail to other entries referenced there. I do the same on Wikipedia, usually going 3-4 or more articles deep. I discuss my process in detail on my website: https://hooversworld.com/how-i-digest-a-book-in-15-30-minutes/
What are some of the earliest reference books in your collection?
Atlases that were published in the early 1800s. I have many books on various topics that were published since 1889. I also own many reprints of atlases from the 1600s.
What are the five most prized (sentimental value) reference books in your library and why? Or asked another way: Eugene Field, an American author and dedicated bibliophile directed his friends that after he died he wished to be buried with a few books that he had listed. What books would be on your list?
I always say my favorite book is the World Almanac — great value, every page (each book is about 1,200 pages long) a thriller. In second place is the Statistical Abstract, which has become very expensive. That would be followed with a United States road atlas and a good world atlas. Beyond that it becomes very tough. How can you pick your favorite child? In each subject, I have 1-5 greatest books. In business history, The Visible Hand by Alfred Chandler. In airline history, 3 books by R.E.G. Davies. On cities of the world, one book. One geography text. Maybe 8-10 key railroad reference books. A bunch tied for the best bird or music book. Presently I am in love with this book, and if I had to only have one on this topic, this is it: Mathematics: From the Birth of Numbers by Jan Gullberg. It sells for as little as $2.86! — which is crazy! It is really worth hundreds of dollars in terms of the quality of its content. I LOVE architecture and design and I have favorites in each category: Islamic architecture, Chicago buildings, Art Deco, houses, etc.
Since you have reference books that cover every subject, what are your favorite subject areas and why?
Business history is my top passion now and the focus of most of my work. There is a huge deficit in attention to it, I have loved it since 1963, so I am the right person to fill the gap. My friends and I launched this non-profit in May of 2019: https://americanbusinesshistory.org/about/
That comes from my lifelong emphasis on finding needs and filling them; starting things, being creative, and doing something no one else is doing. Thought followed by action. Entrepreneurship. Trying to make a contribution. For more on sharing what you know, visit: https://hooversworld.com/getting-into-the-information-flow/
I love retailing, transportation, maps, history, birds, trees, music, Indy car racing, and a bunch of other stuff. Above all else, I love learning. More important than eating! A day without learning is a disaster. Ideally, learning every hour; from all sources!
What are some of your treasured books in your English language collection?
The full 20-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary was a going-away gift from employees when I left Bookstop. I use it surprisingly rarely. Most terms I look up are technical terms in nature and math, so I look them up on Wikipedia. I do like the etymologies in the OED. Roget’s International Thesaurus, 7th Edition, gets heavy and regular use. I don’t think I treasure any of the other word reference books. I have tons of books on quotations, thesauri, the Word Menu book, crossword puzzle dictionaries, etc. It is just comforting to know they are there if I need them. On the other hand, I do treasure and frequently consult my reference books on company histories, transportation industries, etc. I also treasure my great atlas, architecture, and city history book collection.
In your book Lifetime Learner’s Guide to Reading and Learning you share 160 books you should know about but may have not heard of. Tell us about some of your favorites on that list.
That is too difficult to choose favorites. Coming up with only 160 was hard enough. I defer to the book.
Every book collector has a Holy Grail, a book that extremely elusive due to rarity. What have been some of your notable Holy Grails over the years?
Nothing that rates that high. Very specialized things. I would give my right arm or as much money as my credit card could handle for a pre-1935 Russell’s Bus Guide, which contains all the timetables in the US. I have an excellent collection with editions that cover the period from about 1940 to about 2000. Note that this would have been easier to answer 30 years ago. But I have acquired most all the books I wanted then. I add new books to seek daily. Maybe 90% of the time I find them on Abebooks or Amazon. I do have a lot of books that are presently impossible to find. (And I get into as many bookstores as possible, everywhere I travel.)
What are a few examples of books that are now impossible to find?
Pre-1900 Official Guide of the Railways are almost impossible to find, as well as any back issue of Russell’s Bus Guide, early issues of the Official Airline Guide, old Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s Manuals (I have a first edition of Moody’s!), and old telephone directories.
Most collectors agree that part of the fun of collecting is the serendipitous discovery: finding a book that you didn’t know existed. What are some of your favorite bookstores or sources for finding those serendipitous treasures?
Bibliographies! I get into used bookstores whenever I can, but not as often as I used to when I travelled more. But I discover many books by browsing bookstores. Every visit to a good independent or Barnes & Noble bookstore, I come out with several books and 10-30 titles for my wish list. And I continually scour Amazon and Abebooks on favorite subjects.
What is one of your most serendipitous discoveries and where did it occur?
I saw a copy of Harry Gordon Selfridge’s history of commerce in an antiquarian store — I think it was Baltimore — but I couldn’t afford it. Selfridge was a merchant hero of mine. Later, when I had money, I bought the best copy I could find on Abebooks. After the hit tv series about him gave him overdue awareness, I looked back at it. He signed it to one of his famous wealthy British lovers!
I have visited bookstores in 40+ countries. So many great adventures! Once, I spent over $2,000 in under 30 minutes. Despite just 1 visit, I have frequent shopper cards for bookstores in Chiang Mai, Moscow, and Tel Aviv. On a trip to Moscow, the UPS fee to ship books home was something like $1,000. And coming home from China in 2017, my extra suitcases full of books added over $1,000 to my trip cost. I took the bus from Austin to Mexico City and back, and brought back three suitcases filled with books – the bus companies do not charge you extra! When I travel, I choose hotels that are near large bookstores, from Portland to Beijing to Tokyo.
What is one of the most memorable used bookstores that you have found a book?
The Strand, in New York City and Donceles street in Mexico City, which is an entire street of used bookstores! The big Half Price in Dallas is also amazing. And then there is Powell’s in Portland, the best bookstore in America, which carries both new and used books.
What is one of your most valuable (cost-wise) reference books?
The two most expensive books I own each cost about $2,500. The first is The Architectural Work of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, Chicago, and their predecessors, D.H. Burnham & co., and Graham, Burnham & Co. by Ernest Graham, et. al. published in 1933. It is an Elephant Folio that was bound by the legendary team of Sangorski and Sutcliffe. This is one of 300 that were privately printed. The second is the Plan of Chicago by Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett, published in 1909. This is also a limited edition, one of 1,650 copies printed by the Commercial Club of Chicago.
There are many publishers of references books with various ranges of quality of design and content (eg, Dorling Kindersley, Oxford University Press, Gale, etc.) What are some of your favorite publishers and why?
All three of those, plus Routledge. There are so many fine publishers. Princeton University Press on some subjects. University of Chicago Press on others. Oxford University Press is probably my overall favorite.
Some reference books are sold as sets. What is the largest set of reference books in your collection?
Maybe Grove on Music, or one of my Encyclopedia Britannicas. About 20 volumes each. But I also have the Business History Review complete from its founding in the 1920s to about 2008; Fortune Magazine since the founding in 1930 thru the 1990s (close to complete); every year of Literary Digest (1900-1930s); TIME Magazine from 1942-72, etc. Also, about 60 volumes of the International Directory of Business Histories.
If you had a team of editors and researchers, what would your dream project be to produce a reference book of some kind?
I have several. A really great world atlas along the lines of Goode’s which includes economic and demographic maps, etc. A reference set on the neighborhoods of America. — all the Lafayette Parks, Lakesides, Uptowns, etc. A consumer-oriented compendium of company histories that is not as pricey as the above-mentioned set. Hoover’s Handbook did this but is no longer a trade book, and they have de-emphasized history. But also many basic nonfiction books that would be reference books to me, such as histories of the Supermarket, General Motors, Sears, and General Electric.
What reference book(s) should be in every home?
That list is my book, The Lifetime Learner’s Guide to Reading and Learning. I covered most of the key ones there. However, for starters, I would mention Stearns’ Encyclopedia of World History, the Almanac of American Politics, de Blij’s geography text book, a United States road atlas, world atlas, World Almanac, Roget’s 7th edition Thesaurus, and a good dictionary.
You are passionate about promoting curiosity and self-directed, lifelong learning since it has served you exceptionally well. Why is a self-directed education better than traditional, classroom-based education? How important are books in that endeavor?
I do not know that a self-directed education is better. But we are ultimately all self educated. The best educated get maybe 5-10% in the classroom, but it has its place. Great teachers, books, and documentaries bring a subject to life. Teachers inspire the young to seek their calling. Using the 5 methods of learning in my book I discuss how they compound and build on each other.
What philosophy (or quotation or proverb) has guided you throughout your life?
I like so many, and try to blend the best. One favorite: “Those who hear not the music think the dancers mad.” I also like the idea that the two best days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. In my 50s I concluded my “why” was to show people things they would not know or know about if it weren’t for me; for example, the tours of Mexico City that I give, my celebration of unusual world musical instruments, an understanding of business history, etc.
Sir Isaac Newston famously said: “If I have seen more than other men, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants?” Relate that to your own life and your own belief in the importance of speaking with others.
I talk to everyone and anyone. No person exists that I cannot learn something from. I am especially inspired by the great leaders and enterprises of the past. Studying them is the best way to learn entrepreneurship and many other subjects. How did they think? How did they come up with new ideas. I also am inspired by what I call wisdom, which is usually in a calm, balanced, fact-based form. Authors George Stigler and Peter Drucker are among the top of that list. I have also been blessed to have had great teachers, mentors, and parents, from whom I learned the most.
I had a philosophy professor in college who asked each student to write his or her obituary, so that it would become a blueprint for our lives. What would you want your obituary to say about you? How do you like to be remembered?
When I was young, I thought, “He was a great merchant and a nice guy.” I now have seen and learned a lot more, and grown. My obituary must be left to others. I would hope to leave the world a better place than I found it, even if in the most minute and interpersonal ways.
You have traveled all around the globe discussing your very helpful and insightful Lifetime Learner’s Guide to Reading and Learning. What response from participants and what insights have you gathered from these experiences?
I have made about 2,000 speeches on every continent but Antarctica. There are so many audiences, each with their own goals.. Ultimately, the top goal for most people is to provide a better life for their kids. People seem to like my message, both spoken and written. I have noticed a minority subset who are inspired by my talk, but I can tell from their enthusiasm that they will be inspired by the next speaker and forget me. I call them “seekers.” They are continually looking for the key. They are seduced by the idea fad of the month. They are always “self-improving.” They have no anchor, and are unlikely to ever find what they are looking for. While I believe in improving every day, that life is a journey of discovery, including self-discovery, it is a continuous arc for most of us, not a sine wave or ping pong ball or rat in a maze. (Words fail me!) Consistency and logic are important to me. I never throw anything away. Not long ago I discovered memos and notes I wrote 40-50 years ago, and was surprised that key ideas I had then are still important to me. Between 12 and 22, I was blessed with great teachers, parents, a church environment, etc. I had challenged and resolved key issues in my mind about God and country, etc. I have been very well-served by this foundation and blessed by this. I may have gone from being a millionaire to almost having my house foreclosed, but I consider myself INCREDIBLY FORTUNATE. Good friends and a sense of humor were also key to surviving the heavy storms.
How has being a book lover and collector who has built this remarkable personal library made you a better teacher?
I learn something new every day — from books and other sources, and I work all those ideas into all my teachings, writings, and speeches. I am always seeking connections that no on else has seemed to have discovered. I especially differentiate myself with my broad historical and geographical perspective, which grows each day. Whether deserved or not, it seems to impress my audiences and keeps them listening and reading.
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