Ancient History 102

This time last year I promised to tell you about the Book Fair’s street sales, and I hate to break a promise. It was one of those adventures where you don’t so much look back and think “Was that a good idea?” as look back and think, “Well, nobody got killed.”

The theory had its points. On Saturday, the Bughouse Square Debates are briefly revived, and a massive crowd gathers outside the library. The Powers That Be felt there ought to be a way to make money out of this group. “They’re facing away from the library: they’ll never notice there’s a Book Fair going on! Let’s take the Book Fair out to them.”

My first response was, “Well, you’d have to pick up a table full of books and take it down the elevator somehow and walk it around the block to the front of the building, but if you can get the volunteers, I don’t see why you shouldn’t try it.”

I got one of those long measuring looks. “No,” they said, with great patience. “We’ll set up empty tables, and you will provide books to fill them.”

“How many tables?” I asked.

“Oh, four or five,” they told me.

“So we’ll empty off four or five tables inside and….”

I could see they were wondering why they’d even invited me to the meeting. “No, you’ll set aside books just for sale on Saturday.”

“You mean not sell the books on Thursday or Friday so we can sell them Saturday?” I swallowed hard. “Do you know it takes ten boxes of books to fill a table? And if you want to restock, you need more than that. What if they don’t sell?”

“You bring ‘em back in to sell indoors on Sunday.”

“Forty to eighty boxes of books. We’ll hold them until Saturday and if they don’t sell on the street we put them out on Half Price Day?”

“Exactly.”

The first year, I set aside sixty boxes of Political Science, Sociology, and Psychology. For one thing, these were related to the subjects the Bughouse speakers were discussing, and for another, we had a surplus and they weren’t selling all that well anyhow.

They didn’t sell so very well out in the street either. “Next year send GOOD books,” I was told.

“Hold good books so they can’t sell Thursday or Friday but can be put out at half price Sunday if they don’t sell during the debates in the street?”

“Exactly.”

Well, the following year, we had a great donation from a book distributor: nice shiny books on Japanese poetry and African-American history in Chicago. There were only about nine different titles, but there were a couple hundred sharp bright new copies of each. I sent those out. We sold a dozen books. But this is where my real plan kicked in. To save the trouble we’d had the year before trying to force eighty boxes of books into our stock between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, I hauled the unsold copies into the basement. We could use them on the street tables again the following year.

Did I mention that three volunteers had to sit outside in the street to tidy up the books (if anybody looked at them) and to take the money (if any)? They also got to pack up the leftovers and move them, and the tables, back to the sidewalk so the City could open the street and let traffic flow again.

The third year I trotted out those lovely books from the previous year. We sold two. The Powers That Be came to me again.

“Better go get your books.”

There was a Book Fair going on, and I was kind of busy telling people where to find the restrooms and explaining why some books were one dollar and others were ten. “Why can’t the volunteers do it?” I said.

“We just had one out there this year, and she got so mad when there wasn’t much business that she left. The maintenance men are busy in the park”

“You mean nobody’s watching the books?”

“Exactly.”

I trotted out to find they were correct. The maintenance men were in the park, disassembling all the Bughouse material. My tables full of books were sitting unattended in the street. And the men from the City were busy removing the barricades to let traffic through. I jumped right to it.

I got the books packed and onto the sidewalk. I got the tables folded and moved. I got honked at. A lot. Walton Street is busier on a Saturday afternoon than you might suspect. There’s a bus stop right there, too.

The following year, the Powers That Be came to me and said, “We know you’re all ready with books to put outside but we’ve decided not to do that this year. We don’t really make enough money on it to make it worthwhile.”

“Gee whizzackers,” I said, kicking at the ground. “You mean no more rushing sixty boxes of books outside on a July Saturday, setting them up, and taking them down four hours later?”

“We’re sorry.”

“Exactly.” 

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