Twice a year, on Saturday in April and October, our local library has a book sale, a day-long event that benefits the town’s main library and its three branches. And twice a year, my husband and daughter are always among the first in line. On the morning of the sale, they’re out of the house by eight-thirty and are usually back by ten, unpacking brown grocery bags full of books. They’ve been going since my daughter was old enough to hold a book (she’s nine), though I’ve never been—not because I don’t like the idea of a library sale, but given the overstocked state of my bookshelves, I stay home. But I’d be there when they returned, and watch as they unpacked their finds, announcing they’d cost no more than a dollar. I had to admit a certain envy—the deals to be had! So this year, I finally decided to go along.
Our library is quite beautiful, sleek and postmodern. It’s about the same age as my daughter, and was still spanking new when I first brought her to toddler story time. She wasn’t one of the tikes sitting cross legged and attentive. She scuttled the entire time, crawling up the carpeted stairs and trying to climb the brushed stainless steel railings. Even so, those mornings paid off. She’s a regular at the library now, and it thrills me to watch her search the stacks, looking for a title I’ve never heard of.
When we arrived at the sale, she wasn’t the only regular. The line stretched through the carpeted halls, from the main auditorium all the way to the glass and terrazzo entryway. You could tell this group was serious from the milk crates on rolling caddies and armloads of empty bags they’d brought along. They were also strangely quiet. I thought at the time the reason might have been the early hour and the gray sky outside, but in hindsight I’d venture it was mental preparation. My daughter is talkative, and attempted to engage a pair of middle-aged women (carrying numerous empty Trader Joe’s bags). They only smiled politely and one glanced at her watch.
At nine a.m. sharp, the line began to wind through the hall toward the bright faces of the Friends of the Library volunteers. They checked our membership and issued neon-colored dots for ID. We passed through the double doors, into the foyer of the auditorium, past a colossal spread of muffins, cookies etc., which by the way appeared to distract no one, and into the auditorium. For the sale, the space was transformed to a kind of exhibit hall with a grid of tables on which books were displayed by type: paperbacks, hardbacks, children’s books, media, biographies, cookbooks, the rare and the collectible. My husband went directly to the poetry tables and my daughter disappeared, found later with a trio of others her age, solemnly immersed in titles at the Children’s table.
If you’ve been to a library sale, you know the drill. You go directly to the area of your interest and begin scanning the spines. My status as a novice would have been apparent in the casual and uncontrived route I took around the tables, the kind of absentminded wandering more suited to a book store or a yard sale—that is, it would have been apparent had anyone cared to notice. They didn’t. With balletic dexterity they navigated around me, ducking ahead or reaching around, fingers tracing the upward facing spines, extracting the desired title with a decisive tug. The sale had only been open a few minutes, but already a few of those around me had a half dozen books on one arm or in a box.
It’s a well-organized event, that’s for sure. Our local Friends of the Library organization bills the sale as “huge,” and it is, featuring thousands of books donated over the course of a year. Annual membership in Friends of the Library gets you priority admission, which was what we and all the other early arrivals had, and for that, the first two hours of the sale were ours.
I appreciated that Literary Fiction was just inside the door, and soon enough found a practically pristine copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (I read my husband’s copy back when it came out and his is not available for re-reads), along with Alan Gurganus’ Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, an exciting find as it’s been on my to-read list. At the same table, an older man was nearby. He was balding, white-haired, genial looking but silent and intent. In the box under his arm were three copies of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. Obviously he was bookseller, or maybe the term is re-seller, and I was curious—we were all doing the same thing after all, searching for books—so I asked how it was he made his choices. He didn’t respond, but shifted uncomfortably down the table, so I tried again with something like, So how’s the selection this year? At that, he quickly turned his gaze away, as if looking at me might bring bad luck, and said, “I don’t want to talk to you.” And then he was gone.
I would have felt dissed, but when I looked around, everyone was doing the same thing, speaking to no one, intently tracking the titles, dumping books into boxes, lugging wheeled crates that were already full of books. Many took care to make sure their selections were not visible, and carefully hid them beneath a sweater, or plastic bag, or a hand-lettered page marked SOLD. This secrecy confused me, but then I’m not a book seller, only a book reader, and at a library sale the two domains have little in common. The book sellers were focused, perfunctory, secretive, and as the white-haired man confirmed, uninterested in chitchat. The book readers were by contrast unhurried, easygoing, open to whatever we might find. I saw a man near History, carrying an open box of oversize books on medieval themes, and given his easy stride and look of contentment on his face, I could only guess his object wasn’t commerce.
In Anthologies, I was perusing decades of Best American Short Stories when on the other side of the table, a woman began flipping through the titles, scanning each one with a small hand held device. She ran through a line with a librarian-like efficiency, though didn’t appear to be on staff. Moments later, across the aisle in History, angry words were exchanged. A woman holding a similar device was being criticized for using it, and in retaliation she hotly defended herself and her right to be there with everyone else. Curious, I asked a volunteer about the device and learned the scanners are used by booksellers to make real-time value queries or as a way of checking ISBN numbers against existing inventory. It’s an assembly-line alternative to old-fashioned visual searching, a practice that is evidently a hot button issue in the world of library sales, where the scanners are seen by some as both unfair and in principal unsuited to the venue. As of yet, there’s been no decision by the library to ban the devices, the use of which the volunteer conceded, is the source of tension between those who buy books for themselves and those who buy them for resale. Still, it’s great to see books being argued over. Given all that books must compete with, that passion gave me optimism, a feeling that books are still important enough to argue about.
Thirty minutes after the doors opened to the general public, the auditorium filled. My daughter had what looked like a dozen books in her bag and an armful of video tapes—a more recent staple of the Children’s table. In addition to my novels, I found like-new condition copies of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. The total? Four dollars. Hard to argue with that.