Behind the Scenes at the Friends of the Library Book Sale 

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The spring 2014 Friends of the Library Book Sale is next week. But last week, in the basement storage rooms (and hallways) of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library on Poplar, pre-sale activity was very much under way.

In the hallways alone, there were 150 or so boxes of books — books donated daily by individuals and local businesses — ready to be transferred upstairs to the site of the sale in the Central Library's ground-floor meeting rooms. More books in boxes waited to be inspected and categorized. (Out of the 3,500 items — not all of them books — donated weekly.) And recycling bins were in place to hold books too damaged or mildewed to sell.

In the hallway too was Cynthia Hawes, who volunteers at the library several days per week. Hawes was taking a break, showing me around, and filling me in on the background work that goes into the library's semiannual book sales.

The sale coming up is May 23rd and 24th, and, as Hawes reminded me, all proceeds go to fund library programs and ongoing efforts: among them, children's summer reading programs across the entire Memphis library system; the digitizing of archival material in the library's Memphis Room; and general staff development.

The book sale isn't all books, however. Magazines, CDs, vinyl records, VHS recordings, and DVDs will be on sale too — and priced to move: top price in the case of adult hardbacks (including oversize and coffee-table books), $2; in the case of adult paperbacks, 50 cents. Children's and young-adult books will be available too, with hardbacks going for $1 and paperbacks for 50 cents.

All told, the sale will involve more than 15,000 items, and for books alone, that means everything from literary fiction to romance novels, cookbooks, textbooks, reference books, and art books, plus books on religion, history, and travel — and more. Hawes said setting out those items for the hundreds of browsers and buyers expected at the sale takes library staff four to five days.

"When I look at the Friends of the Library, the first thing that jumps out is the $400,000 positive impact we have generated for our library system annually for the last several years," Herman Markell, another library volunteer, said by email. "All with a handful of volunteers and three part-time employees and all from donated material and library discards! We do this with basically three revenue streams."

Markell was referring to the donated books slated for the shelves of the Second Editions bookstore at the Central Library, the two book sales per year, and the library's online inventory (more than 7,000 titles) sold through Amazon.

The books on Amazon have a separate storage area in the library's basement, and, on the day of my visit, Sanda Smith, Kathy Fay, and Louise Brown were manning computer stations.

Looking for a two-volume Icelandic dictionary? You're out of luck. The library's copy sold on Amazon, Hawes said. But just try not eyeballing the thousands of books in the room next door, where donated books are broken down by category.

Sherman Dixon was there inside a chain-linked area, where signed editions, mint-condition editions, and rare volumes are stored. Bill Fidler was within reach of a multivolume set of Casanova's memoirs. Frances Manley was gluing the spine of a well-worn volume. And Diane Parker, Thomas Jones, and Sharon Trower were busy shelving.

Hawes was busy answering my questions, but I was wondering: How do these people get anything done given the daily fresh supply of donated books? Hawes answered by showing me a set of lockers, each with the name of a volunteer, and opening one. It contained a stack of books, which volunteers can take home, enjoy, then return.

An "occupational hazard" to working among so many books? Sherman Dixon, who said he had more at home waiting to be read, wouldn't call it that. "My wife would," he added.

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