Monday, May 20, 2013

Book bounty

Last weekend, our local library held its annual book sale. This event is always a madhouse. The library spends the whole week collecting donated books and recordings from residents, and sorting them into boxes in a back room. Then on Saturday morning, even before the library is officially open, they unlock a back door and let in half the population of Highland Park, as it usually seems at the time, to paw through the thousands of volumes that are roughly grouped into categories on tables in that small back room...and in boxes under those tables...and on additional tables lining the back hallway...and spilling out onto the back lawn.

We go to this sale every year, and every year I forget until I get there just what a zoo it is. The outdoor area isn't too bad; although the books are just loosely (and not always accurately) grouped into boxes laid out in rows on the ground, there's generally enough room for more than one person at a time to examine each row. But the crowd grows much denser once you pass through the door, and denser still when you push your way into the little back room. The tables are so tightly packed together that there's just enough room for one person to squeeze between them, and no room at all for a second person to slip past while the first is browsing the books. This means that if I want to look at the contents of a particular table, I often have to wait for someone else to get out of the way first—and even after I gain access, I don't really feel free to take my time browsing, knowing that I might be blocking someone else's way to the books.

The upshot of this is that, although we're surrounded by thousands of temptingly cheap books, we usually end up actually buying very few. Personally, I no longer even attempt to look at every volume that's on offer. Outdoors, I may take the time to at least glance at every title in the boxes of cheap sci-fi and romance paperbacks, but once I get inside, I concentrate on pushing my way through to the few sections that particularly interest me—gardening, games, economics—and thumbing through the volumes there as quickly as possible to see if there's anything worth a more careful look. If I do find something of interest, I take just a few seconds to read the cover blurb and maybe flip through the pages before making a decision and either adding it to my stack or putting it back. As I make my way through the room, I'll give a cursory glance to the rows of novels arranged on the tables, and maybe even pick up a title that jumps out at me, but I don't take the time to read every title—and I don't even try to look at the ones on the floor. This year, after about half an hour of fighting our way through the crowd, we ended up buying just four books:
  • a hardcover collection of mystery stories from the '70s
  • an Inspector Morse mystery
  • a fantasy novel by Garth Nix (author of the Keys to the Kingdom series)
  • The Starving Student's Vegetarian Cookbook
At $2 for the hardcover and $1 per paperback, we spent a total of 5 bucks.

So how is it that I now have a stack of nine additional books on the table in the back room, which has become our unofficial holding area for books waiting in line to be read? Answer: the real bonanza of the library book sale comes on the Monday after the sale officially ends, when the library offers up the leftover books for free to anyone who's willing to take them. I usually take home a lot more books from the post-sale than I do from the sale, not just because they're free, but also because I can actually take the time to consider books that I barely glanced at on Saturday. There are usually a couple of other people in the room browsing through the discarded books along with me, but nothing like the kind of crowds there were over the weekend, so I can "shop" at leisure. I can examine every title instead of just taking in a box at a glance and picking up anything that jumps out at me. If something looks potentially interesting, I can actually take the time to pick it up and read the first page; if it holds my attention that long, I have no reason not to go ahead and add it to the stack, because what the heck, it's free. As a result, I'm a lot more likely to end up with intriguing-looking titles by authors I've never even heard of, like Waiting for the Galactic Bus or The Dyke and the Dybbuk, which I'd most likely pass over unexamined during the hurly-burly of the sale itself. I even picked up a couple today that I probably would have been willing to pay for, like the Mother Earth News publication Living on Less (a potential treasure trove of material for this blog) and a collection of little-known writings by Ben Franklin, bearing the giggle-inspiring title Fart Proudly. These would almost surely have ended up in our bag if I'd spotted them on Saturday, but they were either hidden in the boxes under the tables or buried in a mass of other volumes that I couldn't take the time to examine carefully.

So, on the one hand, I'm quite pleased with my haul, which now totals 13 books for a mere 5 bucks. But at the same time, I'm a little disappointed to see how much potential revenue the library is losing out on by having so many books that clearly are of interest to people like me go unsold. I wonder if there's anything they could do to improve the shopping conditions at the sale so that people would find it easier to browse the books and, potentially, pick up more of them. The biggest problem is that the little back room where the sale is held is so small, so I'm wondering whether the sale might be able to spread into some additional spaces in the library, such as the individual study rooms. Perhaps each of these small rooms could house a different category of books, so that people interested in one specific genre could focus on those areas and avoid getting in the way of others who prefer different subjects.

The problem, I suspect, is that the librarians don't want the noise and bustle of the sale to interfere, any more than necessary, with the regular functions of the library. But I wonder whether maybe they would be better off just declaring the library officially closed for those two days and turning over the entire space to the sale. The library is already closed on alternating Saturdays and Sundays, so it would only be one day of library access lost. Of course, that would mean that those who use the library every weekend would have to go a week without, and it seems like that happens often enough as it is, with the library closing all weekend for every conceivable holiday from Presidents' Day to Labor Day. But then, maybe if they could raise enough money with the book sale, they might actually be able to keep it open more often, so the patrons would gain more library time in the long run.

On the other hand, maybe the sale is about as successful already as it can stand to be, and I should quit looking a gift book in the mouth.
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