Our school’s parent-teacher association runs a massive used-book sale every September, at the festival that takes place in our town for the Labor Day weekend. We collect thousands upon thousands of books, sort them into boxes for easy transport and display, and set them up on tables (under tents for shade, this year). We charge a dollar or two each for them – less as the weekend progresses and we just want them off our hands – and we raise a whole lot of money for the PTA to help the school send kids on field trips and do all the other great things our PTA does.
It’s a massive undertaking to organize the sale, and it takes a lot of volunteer power. This year for the first time (now that I’m no longer involved in volunteering for the nursery school) I’m helping out more than I had before – as someone yesterday said, I get to see how the sausages are put in the casings instead of just selling the sausages at the end. Looking at the amazing collection, ranging from the bizarre to the vintage, the beautiful to the trashy, I wondered about the people who gave their books away. Or who died and left others to clear them up and pass them on.
An elderly couple drove up to the school in the morning, after the first-day-of-school crowds had dissipated, with a pickup truck full of books. Not even in boxes or bags – just about 400 hardback tomes, mostly if not all non-fiction, tossed loose in the back for us to put on our little red wagon and trundle into the sorting room, one journey at a time.
From our end, seeing the wagon come into the room piled high with books, it looked like another half hour of sorting, flipping, deciding, box-cutting, and lugging. From the point of view of the sale, it might mean another $500 or more for the school, depending on whether the right person happened upon the right thing at the right time, or whether they were in fact saleable at all.
But as I went out to the truck to help fish everything out and load it up, and talked to the donors, I learned what else these books meant.
“These books mostly belonged to my son,” the woman said. She told me she was 80, but she seemed like a very young 80 to me. The sort of 80 I’d aspire to. “Some of them were his daughter’s.” Some of them were books they’d bought for their kids or their grandkids – a beautiful full set of animal encyclopedias with luscious illustrations. I thought of the 1970s childhoods of the siblings in a house where that set was a prized Christmas present, maybe. The whole lot ranged magnificently in subject matter from sailing to Freemasonry, and all sorts in between – a history of the world in many heavy volumes, a giant medical textbook… As if these were people who just picked up books and took them home because they liked them. They owned books to own books. “You’d know so much,” she said to me, “if you read all this.”
They had raised their family in our town, and only moved away when the children were grown. Her son, the one whose books many of these were, had died. She said all the siblings come back for the festival every year. She picked out a few books that had been included by mistake: “I wanted to keep this one,” she’d say, and watching her fingers run over the dust cover, I could see the meaning it held for her, the familiarity and the memories and the history behind that particular collection of pages and binding. Every one of those books probably had a history behind it in her eyes. So many memories; so many stories.
“You’ll have a lot more space now,” I remarked, when we’d unloaded them all. I pictured empty shelves, or a whole corner maybe devoid of its stacks. They looked at me with relief in their eyes and agreed. But it was more than just space in their house. I knew they were saying a last goodbye to their son with this journey; moving on mentally, making a space and a peace inside themselves. Making room for grandchildren and the great-grandchild they told me was on the way. They may have been 80, but life was moving on and they were moving with it.
I went back to my sorting with new eyes.