Tag Archives: volunteering

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.

Without whom

I was pretty much dreading Friday. I knew it was going to be a lot of work, and if there’s one thing I try to avoid, it’s work. Especially of the moving-around, lifting-and-carrying kind. Also the other kinds, but mostly that kind.

Friday was the day when we had to take all the books that we’d spent the past five weeks collecting and sorting into boxes and piling up in the music room at school, and move them to the booksale site at the festival. You don’t understand how many boxes that is, how many books that is, how heavy they are, how I looked around the room and wondered how we would ever do it.

But you know you have amazing friends, and fabulous volunteers, and a wonderful community, when someone asks you what they can do, whether it’s finding empty boxes or piling up books, or something else entirely. When someone else says “I can’t be there in the morning but can I bring some cold drinks and fill the cooler with ice for you?” When ten parents show up to carry boxes of books instead of going to the gym (just as good a workout) or going home and enjoying their calm and child-free house, or even going to work.

We had hired a U-Haul to get the books on site. A 17-footer, I believe, which sounds more like a yacht to me. We filled it to capacity, twice. And unfilled it, twice. We had pizza in between runs, paid for by the PTA, as well they might.

And it was all done, with good humour and a lot of laughter. The sale was in place, and I had all the rest of the afternoon to string the lights and artfully place my pricing signs (hastily photocopied in the school the day before) and shoo away the book dealers who find out about these things and begin to circle like vultures more than an hour before you open, just in case they might be allowed to browse the stacks before we start taking the money. Hands off until 6pm but I couldn’t stop them walking slowly by those books that were uncovered and looking with their eyes, not their hands.

It didn’t rain yesterday or last night, and the forecast for the rest of the weekend is fine. If we get through without any downpours we are on track to do well. Even if it rains and all our stock is wiped out, it doesn’t really matter. We’ve made a profit, we have money in the PTA coffers, we’ve upheld the tradition of the booksale, which might possibly have been going for 50 years, according to sources in the local paper last week. And I was part of it.

At my first PTA meeting in the school, four years ago, the first thing that happened was a report on that year’s book sale. I looked in awe at the parent who had run it and thought that, while I was eager to help out, I would never be the one to take on such a responsibility.

Guess I can chalk another one up to “things I’ll never do” and be ever grateful for everyone else who helps, without whom it would not happen.

Boxes of books piled up on tables under a tent; people browsing.

One booksale, for your enjoyment.