Tag Archives: Labor Day Festival

The vultures

I have to tell you about the book dealers.

Book dealers are not people I’d ever given any thought to before this time last year. I’d heard the phrase, I suppose; I knew it was a job; but if you’d asked me I would have imagined them as little old men in dusty shops, surrounded by heavy leather-bound tomes of great antiquity. If you wanted to buy or sell a particular hard-to-find book, you’d go there and have a conversation in hushed tones.

Of course, now there’s the Internet, so everyone can be an armchair book dealer if they want to. You can sell your granny’s collection of Barbara Cartlands on e-Bay or Craigslist or Adverts.ie or just get someone to take them away from Freecycle.

But if you run a used-book sale every year, even just a local PTA one, and it’s quite big and contains books donated by many different and interesting people, word gets out. And the book dealers find out about it (especially if you advertise on one of their websites), and they come to your sale.

And these people are intense. This is not a hobby. This is life or death, I’m telling you. It’s a cut-throat business.

For one thing, someone tried to sabotage our ad listing on the dealer website last year by changing it to say that the books had already been picked over by a dealer. This would make the other dealers think it was less worth their while coming. They tried to do this in an email using the (misspelt) name of the PTA president so it would look as if it was an instruction coming from us. Luckily we caught it and changed it back, because our books are never picked over. Something similar happened again this year. They don’t back down.

On the day the sale starts, we bring all the books to the venue and set them up on tables under a tent, usually by about 2pm. Then one or two of us stays to put up lights and get everything in order, and to make sure nobody runs off with the books. By 2:30 that afternoon, there was a guy wandering around, looking interestedly at the books. He was friendly and polite, and he didn’t touch anything, but he wasn’t just an idle passerby. There was another one by 3pm. The sale doesn’t open till 6. All afternoon they arrived in ones and twos, some with bags on little trundle trolleys, ready to take away a haul. They ranged themselves around the sale, and I started to kick them out of the middle rows where they were too obviously poking around.

Some of them are lovely, friendly, polite people who don’t like others giving the profession a bad name. They all see each other at events like this regularly – every weekend, maybe. I was amazed by how many of them I recognized from last year. Some of them are a little grumpy and unfriendly. But they all did what I asked and stayed out of the stacks as soon as I said they needed to move.

To be honest, it was a little bit of a power trip, having all these people do what I told them. The volunteers staffing the sale from six o’clock on hadn’t arrived yet, so I was singlehandedly holding back the tide. The semblance of perfect authority was slightly marred by my children, who were also there, dancing along behind me demanding ice cream and lollipops and whatever they thought they might get at the festival that was setting up all around us. All these adults, perfect strangers, hanging on my every word … and these two short people who came out of my own uterus, ignoring me. I caught a few amused eyes in the crowd.

I told the dealers there was no touching until six. I emphasized that we were going by my clock, not anyone else’s. I swear I saw someone synchronize their watch. They inched ever closer to the tarps tantalizingly covering up the books and the CDs (we have a media section too). At 5:50 I had to start removing the tarps. You could have cut the tension with a knife. Their eyes were bulging out of their heads and their fingers were itching to grab a box of books or riffle through a tray of music. I held all the power. I restrained myself from letting out a maniacal laugh. I watched the second hand tick by. I wondered if I could mess with them by never announcing that the sale was open.

My relief shift began to show up, and I hugged them, because the tension was getting to me, and I really couldn’t open at six if nobody else was there to run it. Three minutes later I said the word, and the surge of book dealers broke over the books. I had to leave then, because it was carnage. I*’d spent all month sorting and packing and stacking those boxes full of books and these ingrates were pulling them all out and throwing them around willy nilly.

The next morning I prowled around the now-much-calmer sale grumbling about how people should be banned because they just mess everything up, and how book sales would be much better without any customers at all.

This is probably how the people who work in Old Navy feel every single day. It’s a good exercise in letting go.

Many people milling around and under a large canopy tent

Let loose the dogs of… oh well.

*Not just me, of course. Me and quite a few other volunteers who enjoy sorting things of similar sizes neatly into boxes. But for the purposes of dramatic retelling, me.

Your Kindle can’t do this

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.


Girl sitting among many books.

Mabel and Dash at the book sale three (!) years ago. (There’ll be tents and tables this year. It’ll be all fancy.)