(Originally appeared in my 2003 essay collection Lake Forest Moments)
Even before the big yellow tent goes up in mid-September in West Park, I anticipate with great pleasure the annual Friends of the Library used book sale. Of course, it helps that one of my greatest passions in life is rifling through rows of used books looking for that as-yet unknown treasure that I didn’t know existed, but that as soon as I find, I must have. Other bibliophiles will know of what I speak.
It might amaze people to know the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes to put the book sale together. Volunteers work year-round collecting and organizing books as they come in to the collection point at the back of the Lake Forest Library. The books are shelved and categorized immediately, and then boxed and labeled for their eventual trip to the yellow tent.
Other volunteers recruit and plan the schedules of volunteer workers – those who will work at the book sale itself, straightening, re-stocking, answering questions, and checking people out.
When you think about it, the scope of the annual project is truly amazing, but there are always plenty of book-loving Lake Foresters who rise to this particular challenge. I myself have often worked the sale. I love donning the apron and strolling the aisles, showing a twelve-year old boy where a pristine paperback copy of Fahrenheit 451 is. Leading a sixth grade girl to an entire box of Babysitter’s Club paperbacks. Pointing a college student toward the poetry section.
I can re-create in my mind’s eye the exact feeling I have upon entering the tent for the first time each year. Part of it is the smell of the tent – a heady combination of musty books and summer grass that is unique to our book fair (maybe due to the fact that some of the hottest weather of the summer occurs those four days). Then there are the familiar faces – the workers who seem to be there year after year, people to catch up with and say hi to.
But mostly it is the sight of all those books, and knowing that I can spend the next several hours, taking my time, handling them, opening them, and adding them if I want, to my already out-of-control collection at home.
Much like the beginning of a love affair, it is the thrill of the chase that appeals to the book collector in me. And, then the next stage of that love affair, the discovery of something wonderful you never knew existed before. Something that makes you dizzy, something you must have.
I’m not talking about the ordinary (but still great) discoveries, such as pristine copies of all of Barbara Kingsolver’s novels in trade paperback for $2.00 each. The dizziness comes with books that you know must be out of print. Books that you can’t buy (well, there is the internet); books that if you don’t buy them right now, you may never find again.
Every year I go to the book sale, I find at least a half-dozen really great books that I never knew existed. One favorite is The Women Lincoln Loved, published in 1927, and written by William E. Barton, bought for $10 (a steep price for a book sale book), but with illustrations and letters and a fascinating narrative. Another find was Life, Letters and Journals of Louisa May Alcott, published in 1892 for $5.00, the dearest little book with a Victorian blue cover and yellowing pages. For a mere $2.70 (!) I was able to take home a fine paperback Life in Mexico: During a Residence of Two Years in That Country by Mme. Calderon de la Barca, a 1952 reprint of an edition that first appeared in 1843. And every year I see several copies of one of the best out-of-print books The World’s Great Letters, edited in 1940 by M. Lincoln Schuster.
Not everyone feels the same way about musty old books, but for those of us who do, the Friends book sale is one of the great annual traditions in a community that places great value on tradition, and on all things cultural and literary. To my mind, the yellow tent represents that tradition of valuing books and education, and of course, getting a good bargain in the process.