Trees Into Books, Books Into Trees

Uribe Book Trees

When is a book a tree?

The obvious answer to ‘when is a book a tree?’ is ‘before it’s been made into a book’—it doesn’t take a scientist to know that (most) paper comes from trees—but things get more complex when we turn our attention to etymology.

The word book itself has changed very little over the centuries. In Old English it had the form bōc, and it is of Germanic origin, related to for example Dutch boek, German Buch, or Gothic bōka. The meaning has remained fairly steady too: in Old English a bōc was a volume consisting of a series of written and/or illustrated pages bound together for ease of reading, or the text that was written in such a volume, or a blank notebook, or sometimes another sort of written document, such as a charter.

The argument for…

The pages of books in Anglo-Saxon times were made out of parchment (i.e. animal skin,) not paper. But nonetheless a long-standing and still widely accepted etymology assumes that the Germanic base of book is related ultimately to the name of the beech tree. Explanations of the semantic connection have varied considerably. At one point, scholars generally focused on the practice of scratching runes (the early Germanic writing system) onto strips of wood, but more recent accounts have placed emphasis instead on the use of wooden writing tablets.

Words in other languages have followed this semantic development from ‘material for writing on’ to ‘writing, book.’ One example is classical Latin liber meaning ‘book’ (which is the root of library.) This is believed to have originally been a use of liber meaning ‘bark,’ the bark of trees having, according to Roman tradition, been used in early times as a writing material. Compare also Sanskrit bhūrjá— (as masculine noun) ‘birch tree,’ and (as feminine noun) ‘birch bark used for writing.’

Oxford Dictionaries Blog 06/10/2014

January 11, 2010 an email drops in that would change how I looked at books. Especially books for which we had no customers.

Name: federico Uribe
Phone: xxxx

i need about 15 to 20 feet of hard cover green books, is ti posible to get them in diferent shades ,all sorts of greens and 10 feet of brown 5 feet of yelow

place call me and let me know if it is posible and who much it would be

I was still handling all the Books By the Foot orders and requests. Technology was advancing so fast. I was able to do business—sometimes significant deals—on my phone anywhere any time…in the car (not while driving), out of town, in the Men’s…

But this one was initially a little dubious what with the spelling and grammar and such. Was this for real? Still, I responded politely.

Yes we can do all these.

Greens and yellow are $13.99 per foot.

Brown is $24.99 per foot.

I can estimate shipping with your zip code.

No other charges or tax.

My cell is 301 xxx xxxx.



He responded:

ok good I ma in miami my zip code is 33137 I will calla you today any way

He called. We took his credit card info and began the order. I did some online searching and found Federico was an accomplished and well known artist. He worked in many mediums—pennies, plastic forks, shoelaces, crutches, pencils, bullets… Really! Does it sound absurd? Well, go take a look at

Pretty cool!

I sent him an email letting him know we were excited to work with him. I included these images of his raw materials:

Uribe Order

He replied:

beatifull thank you

(Now lest you think I am mocking his English I assure you I am not. These are cut and pasted quotes of his emails. Sometimes they took a bit of decipherment. His English is far better than my Spanish. I only include the exact quotes because…they are fun and quirky. This relationship was to last a number of years. I still hear from him occasionally. Usually, it is for a gallery opening. I hope he works in books again…or records or…)


(Lest you think our Books By the Foot program is about book destruction let me assure you it is about #BookRescue. Every book we offer via the program is otherwise destined for complete destruction—the pulp mill. These are books we cannot sell or give away to readers or collectors. The program has advanced in 2018 to the point where we buy tons and tons of books FROM the pulp mills to sort through and search for books we CAN sell to readers and collectors. If we find books for which there are no readers or collectors THEN we send them to Books By the Foot. Most of the books we acquire this way were sent to the pulpers by large charities that get far more books than they sell online or in their stores.)

The dialogue with Federico continued for over a month. We exchanged about 50 emails. Many were clarifications and “translations” as well as images of book sizes and colors he was requesting. I’d send them to be sure he would like what he was getting.

yes those are good 2. give me brake on those that I would have to use more to do the same sapace but do send them as soon as yo can, i’m a working in big instaletion made out only on books ,and may need lots of them

Many of emails were reorders.

“50 more feet of green”

“Are these ok?”

Green Books

“More Green. More yellow. More brown and tan.”

This was exciting.

Federico’s passion and creativity got me thinking “outside the box.” I got together with Clark.

“We should create a website just for Books By the Foot. Spin it off from”

We’d been selling books by the foot since the 80s. In the beginning it was to interior decorators who would request leather or vintage cloth. Sometimes they’d come to the stores to pick what they wanted. Sometimes there were phone orders. They would take books that didn’t sell well in the stores but were still beautiful objects- IF the price was right. It was always a great symbiotic relationship. They would help us cull unsaleable stock and provide MUCH needed revenue. We would cut them great deals on stale stock, obscure authors or broken sets. Then one year I got a call from a Model Home supplier.

“I need 2000 hardcover books. It doesn’t matter what they are as long as they look good and wouldn’t contain anything to offend anyone. BUT I can only pay 50 cents a piece.”

My first thought was “50 cents? Impossible. We can’t afford to sell books that cheap.”

But then something smacked me into reality.

“Yer NOT sellin’ a book for half a dollar. Yer making a 1000 dollar sale! How often do you do that?!”

In the 1980s … not so often.

Waiiiiiit. Am I hearing things?

Was that my first encounter with my Book Muse? No. I’m sure she’s been with me a long time. Maybe forever. For some of my earliest recollections are of books and the magic they conveyed. I recall having my parents read me Peter Rabbit so often that as a toddler I got so I could “read” it as they turned the pages. I had it memorized. (I did NOT like Farmer McGregor at all!)

But perhaps if I’d heard a voice from the ether before well…I may have thought I was going…


I could hear her now!

I thought of all the bestselling authors whose works were piling up on the floors and clogging the fiction shelves. How many duplicates of Danielle Steel and James Michener did we have on our shelves? Tom Clancy…all the others megasellers we got too many copies of no matter how we tried to turn them away.

But did we have 2000 (!) books I could afford to part with at 50 cents?

“Yer digressing.”

There she is again. “She Who Must Be Obeyed.” My own Ayesha. My Book Muse with whom I’ve been fortunate to have been paired since…I dunno…If you haven’t read any of the previous book stories here’s the skinny. I hear voices. Well, just one voice. One with a lovely Irish (Or is it Welsh? Maybe she changes it to tease me?) accent. This voice, though often chiding, has, over the decades helped me immensely. Often, I don’t even know I’m being “helped” until all is made clear—in the end. I’ve almost always found her “advice” to be sound—eventually. Even if I didn’t understand what she was getting on about in the beginning.


“ALMOST always!?!”

“I’m sorry. Yes Always, Mademoiselle Perry Mason. It is Mademoiselle?”

“This is a story about trees and books, no?”


“And you’re telling ancient tales of Wonder’s early days? Our early days?”

“I’m just setting the…”

“‘Scene’! I know. You’ve a talent for ramblin’ and right now yer heading way off the path.”

“Back to Federico?”


“Not telling?”

“What is it?”

“Is it Madame?”

“Incorrigible Eedjit!”

So, I spent a month bantering with a Colombian artist for an ever expanding project.

More green. More brown. More yellow, cream , white, tan…

Now I will digress—BRIEFLY—once more. If you read the book story, the Wonder Blog, posted on December 8, 2017 about the Russian books you know we rescued about 120,000 Russkiye knigi—abandoned by Victor Kamkin Books when their landlord locked them out. They were being unceremoniously scooped into dumpsters by “Buddy” driving his Bobcat—front end loader.

We made a deal and packed everything that was left. Only after we had acquired them did I come to the conclusion that I had no idea what to do with that vast majority them.

Federico was exhausting our supply of certain color books. The Russian books were languishing in trailers out in the parking lot. There had to be some green ones out there right?

I carried a stepladder out and clambered into the trailers. I crawled over double stacked pallets loaded with boxes and Gaylords (giant heavy duty corrugated cardboard containers approximately four feet by four feet by four feet which rest atop pallets) filled with mostly unsalable Russian books. When I found a vein of green spines or brown spines or … I’d crawl out with an armload of samples. I kept track of which trailer and what spot in the trailer I’d found the right color books. (Don’t get me wrong. These weren’t ALL unsalable. There were a good number of luscious bilingual art and costume and jewelry and coin…but I MUSTN’T digress any longer!)

I sent pictures of the Russian books to Federico. He wanted some. Not enough to put a dent in the 120,000—but still I could place some obsolete Soviet era dogs…I mean unsalable tomes, with him.

Russian Books

There was a sense of excitement and anticipation building as we did not know what he was using all those books for but he had promised pictures of the project when he’d completed it.

Then disaster struck. The blizzard of February 2010. It snowed and snowed and snowed and blowed. Drifts on the highways buried cars up to 15 feet deep. The region was paralyzed. Our landlord informed us the roof might collapse under the weight of 6 feet of snow drifting up on it. We weren’t allowed in the building until engineers checked the roof joists for stress. Everything we had built for 30 years could come crashing down any minute.

Eventually, the sun came out. The plows came through. The stranded motorists were rescued. And the roof was deemed safe, and we were permitted back into work.

Snowy Warehouse

Federico needed more books. We staged them on shelves and sent images.

chuck how many of this green books do you have and how much would they cost me


this are not usefull to me by now, waht bout the thick brown

And we kept sending them. Now at a deep discount not only because of his volume and willingness to take books we had trouble moving other wise but because we were becoming part of his project.

Then things got quiet.


hola chuck, thank you for the green rusian books , I did use them , here is a pick of my mangrove made out of your books hope you like ir


Book Mangrove

The subject line read “Maglar” which is Spanish for Mangrove

then more orders

and more

a year went by

more trees

Federico had made a forest out of salvaged books.

Book Trees

Here’s a link to a virtual tour of his installation:

In January 2011 we were featured in a NYTimes article about designer books. Read it here.

We put them in touch with Federico. Here’s what they quoted:

Federico Uribe, a Colombian conceptual artist working in Miami, is another big customer. He has ordered thousands of books in primary colors to make energetic sculptures of palm trees and boa constrictors. (“Most people destroy trees to make books,” Mr. Uribe said. “I destroy books to make trees. I like that the books are telling a story in a different language.”)

Over the next few years he went on to do many more book art projects and we gladly worked with him on new and different colors:

I have not recive them yet, I need 8 more feet of yellow and 2 fest Orange




I miss working with him. I hope he gets “Bookspiration” again. We’ve grown into 130,000 square foot building plus about a dozen trailers fully packed.

We have hundreds of thousands of books set aside for Books by the Foot now.

No matter how big a project he conceives I’m pretty sure we could supply.

Genius inspires and spurs us onto to try to keep up with any and every book concept put before us.

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