Even when it was young, it was old.
Of course, it was “old” in name only. Nobody could have predicted the Friends of the Library Old Book Sale itself would get … gulp … old.
Just like children, events grow up, too. They become traditions.
The Old Book Sale turns 50 this year. It officially has been elevated to “Goldie Oldie” status. It has reached the age where it qualifies as a card-carrying member of the AARP.
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Not everything makes it to the half-century mark. Athletes and soldiers fade away. Celebrities become yesterday’s news. Fads and fashion trends fall off the radar screen. Cars rust. Ships sink. Businesses close their doors forever.
Westgate Mall was the first enclosed mall in the state and the venue for the Old Book Sale during its first 27 years. Now it’s a ghost town of empty store fronts, an eyesore (and heartache) to all who shared fond memories there.
This year’s 50th book sale begins on Wednesday at Central City Park with a preview party for FOL members. For 30 hours beginning Thursday, the four-day sale will feature a bargain book bonanza, with more than 100,000 titles in 75 categories.
Not many can recall the first book sale in April 1969. In those days, Amazon was just a river in South America. To check out a library book, you had to go to the card catalog and look up the Dewey Decimal number.
That first sale consisted of 3,000 books spread across several tables in the center court at Westgate. The two-day event raised $1,673.52, which had volunteers doing cart wheels on their way out the door.
The Old Book Sale was an idea born out of another idea three years earlier – to organize a Friends of the Library chapter in Macon.
A less-than-flattering survey had rated the city’s library facilities as inadequate compared to cities of comparable size. Although, the Washington Memorial Library was a majestic building, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Plus, it was the only show in town. It would be another six years before the first branch opened in Shurlington, expanding the library system into the suburbs.
Helen Frank was concerned enough to call a meeting at her home and invite a dozen women to address the situation. The ladies voted to organize a local FOL chapter, and a campaign was started to raise money and awareness of the library.
Books for the premiere sale were collected through donations and withdrawn library books. The buzz of the sale took some time to catch on. Over the first five years, a modest $11,461.48 was raised. By comparison, more than $2 million has been generated in the sale’s 50-year history, according to FOL officer Andy Newton.
Putting it together
The Old Book Sale isn’t a one-and-done event on the edge of winter. FOL volunteers gather and price books every week in their workroom, a former dry-cleaning business at Riverstreet Crossing. There now are on-line sales, as well as Saturday sales.
Last week, I visited with three Old Book Sale Old-Timers – Cathy Ivey, Larry Caldwell and Sally Heard.
Sally and Cathy became involved at about the same time in the late 1970s. Larry jumped in when he began working at Washington Memorial Library in the early 1980s.
All three are passionate about books and have a deep love their community. Cathy said they also stand on the shoulders of their FO-Elders, who were mentors and role models during the early years of the association.
If there was a Hall of Fame for the FOL, there could be a museum, too, with display cases of the unusual items volunteers often find in donated books.
Sally has come across everything from love letters to antique stamps to a 1966 Greater Macon Shopping Guide, which includes a page and a half of full-service gas stations. (When is the last time you’ve seen one of those?)
Larry once found $340 cash slipped between the pages of a book. Either someone forgot about their “stash” before donating it or have mighty expensive taste in bookmarks.
Another time, he found a stamped envelope from 1882 addressed to Macon attorney Hugh V. (Vernon) Washington. (Washington Library is named after him.) The most unique discovery was a 432-page “Spec Ops” book. It had a 9-mm bullet lodged in its spine, so somebody apparently had been using it for target practice.
At 50, the Old Book Sale remains strong, even though its glory years have come and gone. The crowds aren’t as large, and there aren’t as many titles available. Fewer dealers attend the sale, but that may be because there aren’t as many dealers.
Reading habits have changed, too. According to Pew Research poll, more than one-fourth of all readers do their pleasure reading on electronic devices.
That’s why it’s comforting to see the tradition continue along the long rows of books in the old warehouse in Central City Park.
“After 50 years, the lines have shrunk, sales are declining and very few dealers show up,” Larry said. “But the love of buying and holding a real book is still alive.”
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.