Behind the Scenes . . .
Because things are still in a turmoil for me, I took the liberty of asking Dan Crawford (aka Uncle Blogsy) of the Newberry Library if I could showcase some of his hilarious blog posts about what goes on behind the scenes at their famous annual sale. Literary-minded Chicagoans are fortunate to have this hugely popular fundraising book sale so at this point I am going to turn my space over to Dan and his deservedly popular book fair blog. Let’s start in January 2012—Dan writes often, presumably to get out his frustrations—so I am using only one post per month so you are not reading right up opening day. (If you feel like reading right up to opening day you are welcome, of course, to visit his blog.)
Friday, January 6:
Um, did I forget to mention that the Newberry was closed seven of the twelve days I was out of town? Did they fail to mention this on the Newberry’s all-new, all-amazing website? Did I unthinkingly leave out the information that by “closed” I meant “there’s a really, really good chance that if you come to the Newberry, you’ll find the doors locked and be left standing holding your banana boxes out in the snow”? Hmmmm?
Okay, there wasn’t any snow. That was my mistake. By my count you folks were so infused with the Christmas spirit that you dropped off 47 boxes of books and tapes and DVDs and records for me, even though I wasn’t there. I DO like my Christmas surprises.
And you did not limit yourself to mere, mundane, everyday Book Fair donations. I got quite a nice brass floor lamp, a carpet runner with only two tiny stains you could put the table lamp over, a massage kit (unopened: obviously a regift situation), a fluffy puppy with squeakers in its toes, a wooden pen, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a chopper as seen on TV.
Sorry: got a bit carried away there. No one, thank goodness, sent me any poultry. (I do not include my unpleasant eBay customer who offered a Christmas goose.) The chopper was a nice touch. Considering how many seen-on-TV kitchen dee-vices are out there, I should be grateful I see these things only once or twice a year. I sold that pasta maker you sent me, by the way. Remember? The one that still had flour in it? A few customers were worried about how old the flour might be and whether it might, after all this time, be inhabited. But it sold to a person who told me she considered flour pests to be the lesser of two weevils.
Yeah, I know. But after dumping all those books on the poor library while my back was turned, you deserved that.
Wednesday, February 29:
So it is Leap Day, that day when dedicated snow-haters grumble, “Of all the months to make longer….” I’m trying to start up a tradition of reading Mark Twain’s Jumping Frog and having a barbecued rib fest on Leap Day, but people just kind of look at me when I suggest it. So never the twain shall meat.
IN ANY CASE, he said, hurrying right along, as people cheer the oncoming spring just as if we’d really had winter this year, I am going to go public with the fact that I like winter. No, before you ask, I don’t like the ice underfoot, and I’m none too crazy about slushy snow in my boots. I will admit the possibility that Richard Adams was right when he claimed people say they like winter because they can come in out of it and that makes them feel clever. I like winter all the same, and I especially like snow, in proper quantities and in proper places.
I wonder if you’ve ever considered the special advantages (and disadvantages) of winter for Book Fair work, both donating and receiving. I hope not, because I’m about to review those for you.
Disadvantages for you
Scraping your knuckles on the concrete as you lift books onto the dock always seems to hurt more in cold weather.
You may have to wait a bit longer before I come to the door. It’s not that I’m fetching my coat; it’s that I have to cuss more when I realize I left my coat is in another room.
After you have carefully edged your way down the ramp from our door to your car, you have to watch me walk cheerfully down the stairs on the other side of the dock. (The ramp is well-salted, but the gradient is steep enough that no one trusts the salt. They also never see the stairs.)
Advantages for you
If you bring a banana box full of National Geographics, you probably will get away unharmed when I slip on the ice while coming after you.
That moldy smell from the basement is harder to detect when the books are frozen from being in your car trunk.
If you realize your copy of “Breast Implants for Dummies” is on the top of the box, your coat is buttoned all the way up.
Disadvantages for me
I stand a good chance of catching a cold while out on the dock sorting your old economics textbooks to toss into recycling.
If you set the boxes down in the snow, some snow will always stick to the bottom of the box and get into the box I set it on top of inside. Sometimes I do not notice this until it gets warm enough to melt.
The longer we stand and chat at the door, the longer it takes the temperature inside the room to rise above freezing again once you’ve left.
Advantages for me
Friday, March 16:
Now, I know most of you folks are the right kind of donors. You don’t pack moldy books in banana boxes, and you don’t slip slow-moving teenagers underneath your copies of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, thinking I won’t notice. The very fact that you are reading this blog shows your superiority to most of the world. (You may call yourself the 1%, if you like, but I wouldn’t.)
Still, I have had a few complaints from my pick-up volunteers, and one or two of them have come up more than once lately. If you could pass these along to those of your friends who aren’t quite up in your level, I’d be grateful.
Have Your Books Sorted: I don’t mean by subject or by hardcover and paperback, though you can if you want to. But please have your books sorted between what you’re donating, and what you’re not. Some of my volunteers adore standing around as you take books off the shelf, explaining the history of each one and what it means to you. Others have a rather tighter schedule and though they will smile, back here they will call you names that will necessitate the repainting of some of the walls.
Tell Security We’re Coming. This is especially true if you’re cleaning out an apartment for someone else, and don’t live in the building. Doormen look askance at people who show up with a van and say “We’re here for the books!” This is so unlikely a story that they have us pegged as jewel thieves from the outset.
Mention Stairs. Did I tell you about language that blisters the paint on our walls? When a volunteer comes out for eighteen boxes of books, and eight are in the basement and nine are on the second floor, we even have to repaint the ceiling.
Tell Your Dog We’re Coming. We can sometimes smile nicely and convince a security guard we mean no harm. Your Rottweiler isn’t listening to a word we say.
Consider Parking. While we haul thirty boxes of old comic books down the stairs one at a time, it is best if we are not parked in a) an alley so narrow nobody else can get through while we’re there, or b) the front driveway everybody uses to pull up to the building. Again, if you live somewhere else and are just cleaning out, YOU may not care what these people think of you. WE may be called back there someday for someone else’s books and be told to park in the next block because of what we did last time.
Tell Your Cat We’re Coming. We’ll be opening and closing all kinds of doors, and you may want to keep track of where little Moofin is at all times. ESPECIALLY if we’re carrying books on the stairs.
Shut Up. Most volunteers love to meet people and talk: it’s one of the prerequisites for the job. But there are certain phrases you should leave unsaid. “The book dealer took a lot, but there are plenty left.” “I threw away all the cookbooks.” “I set the boxes over there so the spiders wouldn’t get into my suitcase.”
Tell the Donor We’re Coming. So far, it has always worked out without gunfire, but we disapprove of your staging an intervention while the owner of the books is elsewhere. It’s not good for our morale, to say nothing of the donor. And it proves what the dog and the doorman thought about us in the first place.
Consider the Equipment. Please don’t tell us “There’s a cart you can use” and then offer us a TV stand with wheels, or a shopping cart, or that wooden object your grandmother used to bring the tea things into the parlor. AND don’t tell us there’s a cart we can use when there are two flights of stairs. Carts are not useful under these circumstances.
Tell Yourself We’re Coming. If we’re coming to YOUR place, we’d like to think you will have been awake for an hour or so, and are ready for visitors. If we’re meeting you someplace to which you have the only key, kindly show up. A mutual swap of phone numbers means we can exchange notes on traffic mishaps and such. Traffic happens. This is really important if we’re meeting you at a storage locker somewhere out in nowhere. One of the picker-uppers swears he hears music from Clint Eastwood westerns while he waits out there. Another thinks of slasher movies. It’s supposed to be about books, plum dumpling, not the cinema.
If you could keep these things in mind, I’d be very grateful. I don’t mind the smell of paint so very much; it’s having to wash my ears out when the volunteers are done describing you.
Monday, April 23:
Longtime readers of this blog (a special class of people who can be told at a glance from their lesser fellows—I keep telling them not to make that face or it’ll stick) will recall a set of rules of existence I set out a while ago, based on my experience as Book Fair manager. These maxims are generally sound, but the one I continue to put to the test every day is Maxim 1: Everything In the World is Off by a Quarter of an Inch. When I am piling heavy boxes of books to make room for more boxes of books, and a box refuses to fit into the space it was meant to occupy, I always console myself by murmuring that this proves my maxim. (It isn’t all I murmur, but never mind. Sometimes it’s pearls of wisdom dripping from your lips and sometimes it’s Frito crumbs.)
Anyway, I have observed a few other truths of life, and as you have helped me come to some of these, I thought you should benefit from my learning. No, don’t thank me: throw money.
Drizzle prevents donations; rain does not. (When it drizzles, people think, “I’ll hold off; it may clear up.” When the skies open and drop a deluge, they think, “Well, this is going to go on all day. I’ll take the stuff over and honk my horn ‘til Uncle Blogsy comes out.”)
That rare and precious set of books will be missing volume 12.
Old adhesive tape that is dry and useless and no longer holds the cover onto the book it was affixed to will, however, stick to that fragile dustjacket you set it on top of.
And it will do so just in the place where the bit you tear away getting the tape off will show.
If you have cleared space by processing 20 boxes of books, someone will arrive with fifteen garbage bags that will more than fill the space provided. (If you have cleared the space by emptying thirty shopping bags, someone will arrive with fifteen banana boxes.)
The best books will be packed in the worst boxes.
Really, really rare and delicate books will arrive in garbage bags.
Rare records will always be packed at the bottom of great big boxes, generally with great big books on top of them.
Having a large amount of work which MUST be finished today increases the time taken by every drop-by donor to fill out a receipt form.
Children are NOT impressed by all the boxes of books. (The more their parents insist they look, the more interested they are in the ramp, which offers immediate gratification.)
You need ruby slippers. (If, on an ordinary day, you click your heels together three times and say “I need a vacation, I need a vacation, I need a vacation”, nothing much happens.)
Monday, May 7:
All right, all right: in response to popular demand, I shall pause in my explanation of the Manager’s philosophy behind all the subject headings at the Book Fair. I’m not sure whether it’s the glimpse into a Blogsy brain that is so appalling or if it’s a simple case of Superman’s wires. It is enough to see Superman fly; it spoils the movie for some people to learn about the wires and camera tricks that make it possible.
So in place of my remarks on the Women’s section (I had a customer once who demanded to know why there were books by men there.) I will address you on the subject of non-book families. I mentioned these folks before—nice people, many of them, and not at all illiterate or uneducated. Some people, as I said, consider their books to be tools: useful when needed, discarded or set aside when not. But a recent donor took it all too far: almost a pathological case of non-bookness.
I get the impression it was a matter of inheritance. A parent or grandparent or someone was altogether the other way: somewhere in her ancestry was a book family. You can tell. One book has the name of the 18th century owner written on the title page, a bookplate a hundred years later from an owner with the same last name, and a scribble underneath from fifty years after by someone with the same first and middle names as the 19th century owner. A clear case of family heirloom bookishness.
What does a non-book family do in such a case? It may have involved an inherited house, and the books stayed for a while on the shelves. They stayed somewhere, at least, where they got too hot and dry, and the leather covers began to break off. This happens in bookish families, too, but in any case does not encourage book use. At some point, the books were packed away, as family treasures not used but too good to throw out, and stacked in a storage locker.
The storage locker leaked, so the books which had previously been too dry now sustained water damage. Such a leak takes a while to notice, because families don’t go out on a Sunday afternoon for a picnic at the storage locker the way they used to. They look in the locker once or twice a year, and then only to get out the lawn umbrella and put away the winter clothes.
On discovering that all these lovely old leather books were damp-stained and losing their covers, the family tried to pass them along to bookish folk via that fine old suburban redistribution program: the garage sale. Each book was marked at three bucks and set out in milk crates. When this failed to turn the trick, they asked around and heard about the Newberry. Saved! They could deal with their ancestral heritage without recourse to the dumpster.
If only the Book Fair had been around fifty years ago, we might have performed a rescue mission. I now have milk crates of books lacking covers, sets lacking volumes (something sold at the garage sale), and books with covers intact but the most appalling stains. Here’s a set of Dickens lacking a volume (there were only four; in 1853, when the set came out, he hadn’t finished writing yet), there’s an important first edition from 1848 in pristine condition if you don’t notice that the entire binding, front, back, and spine, is missing, and here’s a lovely set of blue leather volumes containing engravings bound up specially for the family AND the only obvious spot of mold in the collection (but it makes up for being alone by also being the size of a dollar bill).
I wasn’t going to talk Book fair categories, but let me just mention that a volunteer once suggested that we set aside a section for Free Books. “You know, books no one would actually spend money for.”
I said, “We have a section like that. It’s called a Recycling Bin.”
Monday, June 11:
A lot of people around here call them Walgreen’s bags, but they’re officially known as T-sacks, because, in their unused state, they look like sleeveless T-shirts. I frequently call them Potash bags, since Potash Bros. Supermarket has been sending them over for years our customers to use at the Book Fair. They have myriad uses, and I am glad they were invented.
However—and I think I have mentioned this before—they are NOT the ideal container for donated books if you have more than, say, fifty or sixty books. The gentleman who last week brought me 800 books in 120 T-sacks was so very proud of himself for getting these delivered to me that I did not say anything about it.
And this is very wrong, rum dumpling. There’s a motivational poem about it, in fact, all about how praise should be given where it’s due WHEN it’s due. “Do not wait ‘til life is over and he’s underneath the clover,” says the poet, “For he cannot read his tombstone when he’s dead.”
Therefore, I would like to send out words of praise to some of the people who have recently made my life so much more interesting.
This is for the nice couple who brought me all those bags of splendid books on Carl Sandburg…and one navy blue sock.
Let’s put up a rah-yay for the lady who gave me the old books with the covers falling off, saying, “Just put a ridiculous price on these and some idiot will buy them. You do it with all the other books.”
I would weep to forget to give a shout for the lady who brought me volume 2 of her copy of War and Peace, reminding me, “I sent in the other volume when I finished it in November: now you can put this with the other one.”
“I’m afraid these are a bit dusty,” said the gentleman who brought me his father’s collection of old newspapers. I’m afraid not all of what was on the edges was dust, sir. And, um, I don’t think it was dust that chewed the bottom margins.
Let us pay proper tribute to the lady who called me to say she had a library of nearly two thousand hardcover books in the areas of history and biography, and could I please pick them up by Sunday. (She gets a rare double cheer because, of course, she added, “And can you bring boxes? I don’t have any.”)
I am especially inspired by the people who said they enjoyed reading our instructions on how to bring in books, and added, in the next breath, “I brought all my old textbooks and magazines.” No, chocolate chowder, they are not kidding: they always turn out to be telling the exact truth.
This is for two different—and apparently entirely unrelated—donors who seem to have stacked the books for donation in their laundry room and spilled liquid detergent on the top five. (They let them dry out first, it seems to me, but a book soaked with scented soap is never quite the same again: it doesn’t TRUST you the way it used to.)
While we’re at it, this is for all of you who stack up the books to be donated next to the bags of cat litter in the basement. The odor of cat litter—and it is unused cat litter, for those of you shuddering—is also not a major selling point in favor of the books.
I could go on, but a Hall of Fame of this magnitude might exhaust our web capacity. Anyway, here’s to you folks who keep this from being a job of mere, boring progress from bag to Book Fair. I bow in your direction, knowing myself to be of too humble a talent to salute you as fully as you deserve, and hope it will not be long before you get that long, lush eulogy you so truly deserve.
(I may send flowers…in Potash bags.)
Tuesday, July 17:
Well, it’s just over a week now: time to tie up loose ends, get those fragile collectibles sealed into protective plastic, and brace ourselves for the onslaught of book bingers.
It’s also time for me to worry, as I do annually, whether I’ve said enough nice things about what we have to sell. There’s plenty in the LP department, lots of children’s books, piles of cookbooks. Did I mention the type specimens? Did I mention all the iris Murdoch first editions, and all the Muriel Spark? The Caroline Kennedy autograph? The Harlan Ellison autographs? The Levi Johnston autograph?
There isn’t much more time to fill you in on everything you mustn’t miss, especially since–as things are arranged in our world–the treasure that speaks to you especially will be something I didn’t notice as it went by. One of the reasons for bothering with all this book shifting is my personal faith that somewhere, someone out there will go through an amazing positive life change from buying a copy of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
Anyway, I must now concern myself with aisle space, table placement, sign placement, volunteer placement, and all other such technical matters. This is work which involves both heavy thinking and heavy lifting, and, while I’m at that, I also need to clean out my work area so it can be YOUR checkout area. This is also time-consuming work. So I would like to say just one little word to those of you who have brought me books this week.
Unfortunately, the Newberry will not let me use that little word on this website.
Um, I understand about those of you who are moving and have somehow ridiculously scheduled the move for the end of July. I presume you didn’t know in June that you’d be moving, and couldn’t bring books earlier. I understand about those of you who just finished reading The Help and want to drop it off and pass it along.
But, friend: twenty boxes of books? And not even in boxes but just piled in the back of your SUV, so a volunteer who was supposed to be doing something useful had to run around and find boxes and help you unpack your car? Yes, the books were fine old treasures: well, they were old, anyhow. They had obviously been sitting in your uncle’s basement since the late 1940s. Moldy, musty, torn: the volunteer said he didn’t know whether he was smelling your books or the dumpster with the remains of Sunday’s wedding dinner in it. (Fish, of course.)
I liked the thirty volume set: that would have been worth selling. Or it would have been if you hadn’t let it sit in something wet. My own nose isn’t perfectly developed: was that antifreeze or kerosene or did one of your pets forget about house training? The book was soaked through the cover and the last forty or so pages, so it sat in whatever it was for quite some time. Thank you for this. I was able to make space by throwing the whole set away: no good without that volume, and that volume was no good at all now.
And while I’m on the subject, I didn’t like the way you said “Your Book Fair is next week?” Tell me you’re not going to do this to me again during the Fair itself. I know I didn’t tell you not to: it wasn’t until you had left that I thought, “Wait a minute. He wouldn’t, would he?”
Eight days to go.
Upcoming Book Festivals and Fairs:
Location: Chicago, Illinois
What I Read (and Finished) This Week:
The Pub House:
Imaging Books & Reading:
Until next week, read well, read often and read on!