It’s Election Day, and I hope all of you go out and vote. Well, nearly all of you. You in the back, with the T-shirt saying “I Heart Banana Boxes”? Come back and vote next week, when there’s no line.
In the spirit of hearing from all parts of the electorate, here is a guest blog of stories from a Book Fair longtimer (I passed a rule against the word “oldtimer” after I turned twenty-one…the second time.) I wanted to post this one today simply so I could say, “I’m Uncle Blogsy, and I approve this message.”
Ad hoc. Yes, Newberry Book Fairs are about as ad hoc as any event can get. The books – Ordered in by some marketing guru? The staff – Highly disciplined retail robots? The venue – Drive through convenience with acres of parking? No no no. Every aspect of the Fair, right down to the customer profile, is quirky, personalized, often top of the head/seat of the pants innovative, and, yes, AD HOC. The book inventory is determined by what our donors give us, and the skill set of the staff varies with the individual life experiences of the volunteers. Thus, the whole operation has the fresh, non-programmed charm of a folk festival. And that same ambience goes a long way toward explaining why, like me, volunteers return year after year. Besides, really bizarre things happen at the Newberry Book Fair.
Such as the year the Library received a huge collection of scholarly tomes, printed in German, from a recently defunct college. Some were ancient, and many were elaborately bound, but it was obvious from the start of the Fair that notwithstanding the quality of the volumes, the demand for books printed in German had its limits. At the end of one busy sale day, I had pitched in to help speed up the checkout process by bagging up orders (a skill acquired at a long ago supermarket job) and noticed a very elegant elderly man who had just bought a great many of those beautiful German books. You can well imagine that after a warm summer day working with hundreds of sometimes musty used books, I looked like something the cat dragged in, and the elegance of this customer seemed that day to highlight that grunginess. Nonetheless, I volunteered to help him tote his order in four or five bags out to his car at the Newberry loading dock. As we finished packing them in and got ready to close the trunk, the gentleman actually BOWED at the waist, picked up my grubby hand, and kissed it, saying “Young lady, until last week I was a busy doctor, with no time to read any books beyond medical journals. Today, I begin my retirement, and thanks to you I will be able to read wonderful literature written in my native tongue, sometimes by men I knew in my youth.”
Fast forward several years: I am again in the checkout area, this time, assigned to the credit card machine when along comes a young man with $70-80 worth of books. He hands over a credit card, but “tilt!” – the transaction is refused. “Do you have another card?” is the stock question when a card does not go through, because most people do. In fact, this chap had a whole stack of “other cards” and kept dealing them out until at about number five, we hit a winner. And people wonder why the country suffered a financial meltdown.
This year, a woman handed me a credit card and her ID but no sales slip. She was, she explained, the mother of the bride to be who would soon be using the card to pay for a “large order” of books later in the day. When the bride arrived, her father explained that the books they were buying had been carefully selected as table favors for the bridal dinner. Each guest would be directed to a table with a specific literary theme – William Shakespeare, for example – and an appropriate selection of books would be displayed as a centerpiece. Does it surprise you to learn that both bride and groom are English teachers?
And then there was the very attractive woman who bought large orders on each of the five days of the Book Fair. Most of us who knew how to wield a hand truck had helped her tote box after box of books to the checkout area. Finally, on the last day I ran into her in the washroom (book fair volunteers spend a LOT of time washing their hands) and asked her, “Are you a collector or a dealer?” “Oh,” she replied, “neither. My daughter and her husband just bought a house so I’m buying books to blend with the décor.” So much for intellectual snobbery.
When we put on our red Book Fair Volunteer aprons, we all have to be prepared for questions – really strange questions sometimes. “Mystical?” asked a tall, willowy woman. “Where are the mystical books?”
“Like Sci Fi books?” I asked.
“Not SCI FI!” she huffed, “I mean MYSTICAL, like meditation.”
“You should look in How To for that” I said, since I myself had set up that section and knew there were a lot of self-help-type books that dealt with that very subject. I was totally unprepared when she wheeled around and stalked out the door! Later, I told the story to one of the staff, saying how bad I felt that my answer upset her, but it was the truth of the matter. Later in the day the Mystical lady was back, and who should she run into but the staffer, who was quick with the answer to her question about where to find the mystical books: “Look in How To.” No stalking out reported.
My all time favorite Book Fair story took place in one of the many rooms on the ground floor of the Newberry Library where the sale books are displayed. This was Room 2, home of short stories, garden books, games and humor. And the question was on the frequently asked subject of book pricing, “How do you price your books?” So we pick up a book and show them, saying something like, “Let me show you. Here in this humor book by James Thurber in the upper right-hand corner of the first blank white page is the price, written in pencil as 4.00 or four dollars.”
“Well,” said the customer, “that’s what’s wrong.”
“Wrong? What’s wrong with four dollars?”
“See this book by Art Buchwald? It’s only TWO dollars! And everyone knows Art Buchwald is twice as funny as James Thurber!”
Muttering something about pictures adding value did not accomplish much, and so I just told her the truth: our books are priced by phantom people who come in during the dark of the moon on Tuesdays.