Literally hundreds of people press–but politely–toward Jan’s table. We grab bags and work down the line, handing out two here, four there, and collecting dollar bills.
“I’ll start with five,” a tiny lady in a thick hand knit stocking cap tells me. Her long gray hair, wiry, poofs out under the folded brim; when she smiles, her grin is gap-toothed. “I LOVE to read,” she says avidly. “These gonna last me all winter.”
There are people of all ages, shapes, hues, and heights stepping forward to get their bags and go to find their treasures.
It takes 15 minutes for the crush to die down, then we go to our rooms to straighten, organize, answer questions. The older ladies’ eyes lit up when they saw Jim; he is a big guy. They point to a heavy cart in the corner.
“You can help people out with their books, honey,” one of the woman says to Jim.
“Sure,” he answers with a shrug. I know he is thinking, How hard could that be?
In the children’s and non-fiction room, there is bustle. One young dad walks the perimeter, his baby son slung over a shoulder. “I’m the only one can quiet him,” he says to me proudly. The baby’s head is up; his eyes roam the crowded room.
At the tables, the mom and three daughters, as alike as graduated beakers in a science lab, search through a table full of nonfiction. The girls all have big gray eyes, freckles, and braids. They wear skirts that come close to their ankles. They look like they’re about two years apart–maybe three, five, and seven.
The middle one tells me she wants books about American presidents. I look inquiringly at the mother, who smiles and nods. “We home school,” she explains. “we let them start with what interests them, and teach from there. You’d be surprised at all the subjects you can tie into the presidents!”
I pull out slender biographies of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, George W Bush. The middle sister crows delightedly.
A pale, thin redhaired boy is pawing through children’s fiction. “I just saw a kid with a rescue and escape book,” he says. “Do you have any more?’
I don’t know what a rescue and escape book is, but we search together, and find several action-adventure stories, some with superheroes. My redhaired friend goes off with a nice-sized pile of reading to find his mother.
There are holes in the children’s books already; I haul boxes away from the wall and fill in the spots.
The non-fiction is busy but not as frantic as the kids’ books. I walk around and straighten books that threaten to slide off the tables’ edges, grab a few books to fill in from the boxes on the perimeter. For a while, a youngish guy with thick, distorting glasses follows me, talking about science books. He has wild hair. His sneakers are untied. His jacket’s missing buttons. He loves, he tells me, physics.
The home schooling family heads to the exit; Jan calls for Jim, who maneuvers the cart into the open atrium. The family has eight bags of books. They are beaming. The girls each have books in their hands, gripped tightly. I picture them in their minivan, three braided heads, each a little lower than the one to her left, each nose firmly buried in a book. Jim helps them stack bags on the cart, calls down the elevator, maneuvers into it. The doors close, and I wonder how many books have just disappeared. Two hundred, maybe? For eight dollars?
I head back toward my children’s book/non-fiction domain.
New people have arrived; shoppers have shifted rooms. I see, on the stage in the catch-all room, ten or twelve people sitting cross-legged on the stage, pulling books out of boxes. They all have stacks started next to them. Each is picking up and examining books, opening them to read a page, flipping them over to check out the blurbs on the back. They’re the intrepid ones, the adventurers. They could find anything in those uncharted boxes.
In the paperback room, tables are rapidly emptying. A mother and daughter–the daughter is, probably, in her late sixties– fill bag after bag with romance novels.
“Mama,” says the daughter, nodding to the smiling old lady, “eats up two of these in a day. We get enough to last the whole winter, in case the weather gets bad. Then we light a fire and just read and read.”
A broad-faced, florid lady with rimless glasses explains to me that she comes each year and buys books for the people at her church. Because of this sale, she says, every single person at her church gets a book to take home from their Christmas party. She tries to think what each person would like, and when she can’t think anymore, she just gets bagsful of books that look like they might be wonderful. It always, she says, works out just right.
Underneath a table in the children’s section, three children, two boys and a girl, sit reading. Their mother bends over to tell them she is going into the catch-all room. They nod without looking up from their reading. She shakes her head. “If they’re looking for me,” she whispers, “will you let me know?”
A tall and dignified older gentleman, humming, crooks a stack of westerns in his arm. He’s looking for non-fiction books about the West, too. “It’s always been an interest of mine,” he says, “and I’ve never been but once. And that was traveling in the war.”
I look at his lined faced and slight stoop and wonder which war was his.
A plump woman in a puffy quilted coat, probably 70 or so, is stacking books in bags. “I take care of house bound folks,” she confides. “Older folks and invalids–you know. They like to read. It’s always a treat to them when I come here.”
As I straighten, I am shopping, searching. I find a beautiful coffee table tome about Picasso, and run out and put that in my bag behind Jan’s chair. My nephew Brian and I saw the Picasso exhibit together in Chicago last year; I’ll send him this book in the mail. The book will cost me less than ten cents, I think; the postage maybe five dollars. Bargains don’t come much better than this.
I find a David McCullough biography of Harry Truman and set it aside; Mark enjoys McCullough’s writing. I find a Scott Russell Sanders’ book I’ve never read: Writing From the Center. I love Sanders’ essays, and I appreciate his deep Midwest roots. I’m a transplant, though I feel my shallow roots exploring, growing deeper; Sanders write from a much more deeply rooted base.
There is a collection of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s journals and diaries. There is a cook book or two I look forward to browsing.
Two hours have seeped away; the crowd has dwindled to just a couple of lagging shoppers. I straighten the tables, take my little stack of books and stash them in the bag. The elevator doors clank open and Jim emerges behind the heavy cart. He is moving a little slowly.
“That boy has worked HARD,” says Jan, and she smiles at him approvingly. He helps one last lady take her books to the parking lot. The rest of us flow through the rooms, straightening, breaking down boxes, putting things to rights for the final segment of the sale tomorrow morning.
Jan says we have sold 300 bags. How many books, someone asks, do you suppose that is?
We all look blank. Well, says Jan, a LOT. That’s for sure.
Rob helps us carry our bags–Jim has two, I have one,–out to my car, stash them in the backseat. He thanks us; we thank him. I slide into the driver’s seat, turn the key in the ignition, and Jim flings his door open and throws himself into the car.
“I got some great books,” he says, ” and I am exhausted.” I stick out my fist and he pounds it, and we pull out of the parking lot, off toward home, where we’ll lug our bags into the house, shift books on shelves, and weave our new treasures in. There’s an hour or two before dinner, and I think I’ll just crack open the Scott Russell Sanders book, see what is in there before I put the potatoes on to boil.
The next day I read an article in the regional paper, kind of an alarmist article about the imminent demise of the printed word, and I snort. The author, I think, ought to come to the next Buck A Bag Book Sale.