Going by the books to shelve a novel plan for business

They say you can't tell a book by its cover, but Berkeley craftsman Jim Rosenau would disagree. Book covers are Rosenau's stock-in-trade and he hunts them down at garage sales, secondhand shops and garbage dumps. It's only the covers he wants, the older the better. He carefully removes and recycles the paper inside, replacing it with salvaged lumber.

This Into That is the name of the business, which sells handcrafted bookshelves made out of actual books. For example, an avid fisherman might get a kick out of something made from "The Compleat Angler" and "Moby Dick." Or, more Jewishly, a bar mitzvah lad could enjoy one of his Hebrew school textbooks combined with, say, Harry Potter. Presently in stock at Berkeley's Afikomen is an engagement shelf with "The New Jewish Wedding Book" at its base and another for the kitchen made of Jewish cookbooks. Just the thing in which to store that leftover matzah meal.

Is this the way to treat a book? "I was raised with a near-religious relationship to books," Rosenau says in the artist's statement on his Web site. "And, like all observant families, we were taken once a week to the library for worship."

He goes on to explain that, when he decided to minimize the use of new lumber in his woodworking a few years ago, he cast around for alternatives. He began with discarded futon frames but, while they are fairly plentiful, they lacked mystique. Inspired by a Nicholson Baker essay on lumber that applied the term to more than just wood, he got the idea for his highly literary bookshelves. "Turning books, which once were trees, into lumber has a pleasing symmetry."

But the respect for the printed word lingers on. "I'm cautious about which books I use in the work," he said recently by phone. "I go to a lot of trouble to make sure I'm not working with rare books. Most of what I use are things that people have donated or discarded. I go to the places where the dealers already have been."

And, although he makes Jewish objects, he never uses holy books. "I've learned that religious books should be buried," he said. "So, when I find one I give it to Jerry Derblich, owner of Afikomen] to properly dispose of it."

Derblich and Rosenau met when both were working as carpenters, and Rosenau credits his observant and knowledgeable friend with giving him a stronger sense of his own Jewishness.

"I didn't really know I was Jewish growing up," he admitted. "My parents were devout atheists and their parents as well. Although their friends were Jewish and my friends were Jewish, they taught me that it was a religion and we weren't religious.

"It's really through Jerry and my other good friend [actor-comedian] Charlie Varon that I've come to discover my Jewish heritage," said Rosenau, who has written comedy with Varon for years.

And he gives credit to his wife, who was raised in a family unlike his own. Rosenau's stepfather-in-law is prominent Los Angeles Rabbi Meyer Heller, once an assistant rabbi at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El. The Rosenaus belong to Kehillah Community Synagogue in Berkeley, where their daughter was bat mitzvah earlier this year.

Back to the books. Rosenau often incorporates found objects into his shelves. For example, the kitchen bookshelf, made of cookbooks, has a wooden spoon attached to the front. In his special-order work, he may use something special supplied by the client. Prices range from under $100 for single-bracket display shelves, including most of the Jewish designs, to $400 to $800 for free-standing bookcases; custom work may be more. Most shelves are priced between $95 and $200.

The title of a book is important, but more and more he finds himself drawn to the cover itself. He likes older books for their look. "The new materials aren't nearly as nice," he said.

There seems to be no shortage. "Books are easy to find, it turns out. Much easier to find than customers for artwork."