- Associated Press - Sunday, July 5, 2015

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Al and Brenda Lewis’ home contains enough books to fill a library.

That’s not an exaggeration. The average branch library in Sioux Falls displays 30,000 to 35,000 items on the shelves at any one time, said library director Mary Johns, and that’s everything from children’s picture books to dictionaries.

The Lewis family’s personal collection totals more than 20,000 hardback books, with 17,500 classified as science fiction or fantasy.

Soon, however, the oak bookshelves in the Lewis’ southern Sioux Falls house will be relatively empty, with many of the cases themselves donated to interested churches or schools. Al Lewis is in the process of packing much of his collection into cardboard boxes for transport to the University of Iowa Libraries in Iowa City, the Argus Leader (https://argusne.ws/1GN9C37 ) reported.

He has help, of course, mostly high school students working for $10 an hour. But Lewis, a businessman, bank owner and Episcopal priest, rejected the university’s offer to pack the books. Why tackle the task when someone else is willing to do it? For Lewis, at least, the answer is easy.

“Because these are my babies,” he said, sitting in one of four bookshelf-lined rooms in his house’s lower level. “This is my love. I want to handle them or watch the kids who are packing them.”

Greg Prickman, head of special collections for the University of Iowa Libraries, completely understands Lewis’ feelings.

“We do everything we can to respect the way people want to work with their collections,” he said. “They’ve been built up over many, many years, and it means a great deal to them. It’s important to us to respect and honor that.”

Lewis’ love of science fiction and fantasy began when he was 12 or 13 years old and encountered authors like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Hobbit.”

But the man who describes himself as having “a type double A personality” didn’t begin collecting science fiction and fantasy novels until the early 1990s, when he started looking toward retirement. What, he wondered, would he do with himself when he didn’t have church functions to attend as the bishop’s assistant, a property management company to run and four small-town banks to oversee?

Lewis didn’t wait to find out.

“I like to manage and run things, and I like to be very, very busy,” said Lewis, who will turn 74 next month. “I decided I would take my hobby of science fiction and fantasy to collecting hardback books.”

So, while officiating, managing and overseeing, he started collecting. The pace of his hobby became frenetic when a bookstore owner-friend suggested Lewis attend conventions and have the authors sign the book themselves, rather than buying signed copies.

“In 2000, I went to my first World Science Fiction Convention in Minneapolis and took cases of books to be signed and got them all signed,” he said. “I was hooked. I spent the next 10 years haunting used bookstores while buying everything that was coming out each year.”

Lewis estimates he has more than 30,000 signatures in his book collection since he pursued more than just the authors. Books were autographed by editors, illustrators and those who wrote the forewords and afterwords. When Lewis purchased an anthology - he’s not donating those to the University of Iowa Libraries, yet - he would keep a list of whose signatures he did not have, read up on which authors were attending a convention, then bring along those books.

At his peak, Lewis estimated, he traveled 50,000 miles a year going to conventions.

He does have a few softbound books in his collection, bending his rule if that’s the only way he could complete a writer’s catalog. Some authors began their careers in paperback, and then were published in hardback after their careers took off.

Lewis’ collection focuses on current writers, not the Jules Verne and H.G. Wells titles from a century ago.

“I’m essentially modern,” he said. “I’m essentially ‘50s on. I probably have 98 percent of the hardbounds that have been published in the last 25 years. Below that I probably have 70 percent of them that were published since 1960.”

Lewis estimates he has read 20 to 25 percent of the science fiction and fantasy titles in his collection. He and his wife have read almost every one of the 2,500 mystery and history books they have collected, however. They are keeping those books, too.

The University of Iowa Libraries has been actively collecting science fiction for several years, Prickman said. Its mission is to amass a research collection of a depth and breadth that will “allow students, scholars, fans and readers interested in the genre to be able to come here and take in the whole sweep of science fiction.”

Lewis’ donation will be a significant step forward in that goal, Prickman said. Earlier donations have resulted in a collection of about 14,000 books, generally paperbacks. Other items in the collection include fanzines, convention materials and programs.

“Lewis brings us up to the contemporary works, the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s,” Prickman said.

Several other potential recipients had turned down his collection or asked for a sizable donation to build a new room to devote to it, Lewis said. When University of Iowa officials saw the list of Lewis’ books, they immediately felt an interest, Prickman said.

“The vast majority are first editions, the vast majority have dust jackets, the vast majority are in excellent condition,” he said. “This will add new material.”

Library officials currently are cataloging a previous donation, and it probably will take a couple of years before the public can access the Lewis collection, Prickman said. Staff will go through each book, noting special features and the presence of signatures.

It is the kind of work that Lewis has done for years and will continue to do until a truck pulls up to his door and an estimated 600 boxes are loaded inside. So far, more than 325 boxes have been filled, and that only takes the collection up to authors whose last names begin with the letter H.

Lewis plans to sell the duplicates he has uncovered at future conventions. The books he keeps aren’t necessarily the most valuable in his collection. He is donating a set of Tolkien books worth $12,000 to the University of Iowa Libraries, keeping a much more inexpensive set for himself.

The book collection has been officially appraised, but Lewis hasn’t heard yet what it is worth. He puts the preliminary value at $750,000 to $1 million.

The monetary valuation is surpassed by the collection’s real worth, Prickman said.

“Ultimately, what makes it worth it from day to day is we know not only can we preserve it for the future, and the long future, it will be used on campus in class. We know this material will be out in front of people and used in classes.”


Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com

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