Trumpets and Cardboard

So it was twenty-five years ago this month that I first walked into a room full of books and tables and set to work for the Newberry Library Book Fair. I was in town to apartment-sit, and I was asked by the lady of the house if I’d ever heard of the Newberry Library.

I had. In fact, I had done some research there the two previous years, for brilliant but inexplicably still-unpublished books.

“They’re going to have a Book Fair this year,” she said, “I wondered if you’d like to go over and help sort books on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.”

Actually, no, I said. I had other plans for my visit to the big city in 1985.

“Well,” she said, “I already told them you would.”

Now, I could have declined to go, but I thought to myself “What’s two afternoons a week?” And so I wandered over and sorted books and priced a few science fiction paperbacks in what is known as Room 101. It was then, as now, primarily used as a classroom, so when we finished at the end of the day, we had to take all the books off the tables and stack them against the walls, marking them “Fiction, priced”, “History, Unpriced”, and so on so we could pick up again where we left off. After only a few weeks we had had our first complaint about taking up too much room, and things were on a roll. We held that first Book Fair in August, 1985, and were told “Thank you very much; we’ll tell you if we want to try this again next year.”

Somebody decided the Newberry would try it again the next year, and, gosh, you can’t turn around twice but a quarter of a century goes by and you’re confronted with your second 25th anniversary Book Fair. I thought I might share some of the things I have learned in the years since 1985.

1. Everything in the world is off by a quarter of an inch.

2. If you are counting on the flap of a cardboard box to fold, it will stay firm. If you are counting on it to stay firm, it will fold.

3. If someone needs boxes to pack books in, and goes to the grocery store to ask for some, everything will have been thrown away except the banana boxes. (It’s the staples.)

4. If you find what seems to be an incredibly rare first edition in a box of books, it will turn out to be the fourth printing.

5. If you spot a first printing of a rare first edition, it will turn out that the second edition is more valuable.

6. If you find a rare record album in a box, the actual record will not be inside the jacket.

7. If you are given a very rare children’s book in what appears to be pristine condition, you will find that the child has carefully torn the last page in half.

8. If a box is heavier than it looks, the donor has hidden National Geographics in the bottom.

9. If a box is lighter than it looks, the bottom has just broken open.

10. If a donor decides to bring in her grandmother’s collection of exceptionally rare first editions, it will be on the day you were planning to take off.

11. If you postpone your day off and come to work to look at the books, they will turn out to be Book-of-the-Month Club editions of bestsellers from the 1940s.

12. If you plan for something to be a quarter of an inch off, it will be off by half an inch, thus restoring the balance of the universe by being one quarter inch off from what you expected.

13. Without that quarter inch, life would be pretty dull now, wouldn’t it?

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