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Bookworm Heaven

What really happens at the semi-annual Alameda Free Library sale

Each May and October, volunteers lug 800 to 1,000 boxes of donated books to the Friends of the Alameda Free Library's three-day fundraising sale at the O'Club. (I had to double-check with my friend, Kate Quick, to make sure I had the numbers right — 1,000 boxes, not books!) With most prices between 50 cents and $2, the sale generates $18,000 to $20,000 in revenue for library programs. For our family of voracious readers, it’s bookworm heaven.

The diehards (collectors and eBay resellers) line up at the locked doors Friday afternoon. They stampede through the entry, elbows extended, to be first at the tables in their favorite section. Well-dressed, manicured women argue for an additional 25-cent discount on a pristine book with a $25 retail value. Rumor has it that one shopper having trouble finding a favorite author criticized the volunteers for not alphabetizing by author. It’s not pretty.

When we arrived, I saw at least three men with glowing bar code scanners crosschecking books against their own inventory or researching Internet resale values. They were so focused and driven that I had to muster my courage to interrupt and ask what they were doing. Serious stuff. Take no prisoners.

But like our family, most people weren’t there for profit — strictly pleasure.

Between the two of us, my daughter Sarah and I spent a whopping $20. I bought two books by Oprah’s nutrition coach, Bob Greene, another on magic food guaranteed to help me lose weight and live longer, a best-selling picture book, Eat This, Not That, and … wait for it … a spiral-bound cookbook with a collection of family recipes from the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. Cookbooks like that have the best recipes — casseroles loaded with three kinds of cheese and topped with butter-soaked crushed potato chips. (Ironic? Yes, I really do think.)

My favorite find was a takeoff on A.A. Milne called Now We Are Sixty. Sarah said, “You’re not 60 yet, Mom.” I said, “No, Sweetie, but it’s coming at me like a freight train, and several friends are darned close. It’s a good one for the gift cupboard.”

Anyway, who wouldn’t love a poem with the line, “They’re changing sex at Buckingham Palace”?

I hope I can convince Sarah to read the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel she bought based on its ornate binding. She picked several books on the environment, waste and consumption. (The good news is that even though technically we were increasing the quantity of our possessions, in my opinion money spent on good books is never a waste.) Most of the rest of her books were about wine and one collection of kissing poems — concrete evidence of her love for a certain young winemaker. And she picked out two books for a dad who likes whales and Westerns and wasn’t up to joining us that day.

Emily, the artist and part-time caregiver to two St. Joseph’s Elementary School girls, bought children’s books, the Complete Guide to Sewing, Crafts Jamboree and several nature books. Marshall, Emily’s young fiancé, bought The Ren and Stimpey Show, Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars #9 and #10, and a Carl Sagan book. Emily was disappointed that Marshall’s Imagery in Scientific Thought contained no pictures whatsoever. (Perhaps the word “imagery” should be stricken from the title of a book with no pictures.)

Late Sunday afternoon, I returned to the O’Club to get a feel for the end of the weekend. (Plus, on Sunday, you can buy a bag of books for $3 and a box for $5.) Several tables sat empty except for scattered metal bookends, but plenty of books still waited for adoption. The sizable stack of thesauruses and dictionaries was a sign of our times — tools invaluable to an older generation,  replaced by the Internet. I was surprised that given all the foreclosed and abandoned homes available these days, no one had scored the copy of Investing in Fixer-Uppers. I felt sorry for The Marvelous Macadamia Nut. If I were a bigger fan of macadamias, I would have thrown it in my bag for its title alone.

And Sex for Christians? Need I say more? My husband wants me to write porn and make us rich, but they say, “Write what you know,” so for now I’ll stick to my column.

Curious about the fate of all the poor unwanted books, I asked volunteer Barbara McGinley what happens to those left behind on the tables when the doors close. She said charities ship some overseas in containers to missions and schools, and the rest are recycled. The volunteers take one Monday off, and then start sorting a new collection the following week.

As I headed out the doors, the tune from the Island of Misfit Toys resounded in my head. I swear I heard those lonely books call, “Come back, Alice! Bag us! Box us!” I put my hands over my ears, got in my car and drove away.

But I did mark my calendar for the next Friends of the Library sale — the weekend of Oct. 5. Come fall, I’ll do my best to give at least a few more books a loving Alameda home.

Jennifer McGaffey May 09, 2012 at 08:09 AM
It's addictive - both the buying and the volunteering. I've helped with breakdown for several years now, and this year I helped with setup as well. And bought six books on Friday and a boxful on Sunday...I did pretty well this year, only 40 books (rather than the 80-100 I've come home with a few times!). A couple treasures (The Motel of the Mysteries!) and lots of interesting books to read.
Tom Brody May 09, 2012 at 04:36 PM
I liked your mention of the A.A. Milne-inspired book, "Now We Are Sixty." But nothing can stop us baby-boomers from trotting over to the nearest stadium to see Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Pink Floyd, the Stones, or The Four Seasons, in our walkers and wheelchairs.
Alice Lewis May 09, 2012 at 06:54 PM
You betcha, Tom! I can't make the September CSN concert, so I hope they'll hang in there long enough for another tour.
Tom Brody May 10, 2012 at 12:01 AM
I will be seeing Pink Floyd this Friday. This was not my idea. It was the idea of a certain 15-year old. I will be bringing my cane, a tab of Polident (in case we stop at McDonald's afterwards), and a bottle of Geritol to keep my energy level up to speed. Also, I got new batteries installed in my hearing aid, and I put an extra dab of glue under my toupee. Okey-dokie, I'm ready to go.

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