Jason Brownlee spends his work days hanging out with navel oranges and Brussels sprouts.
As manager of the produce department at the Kroger store on Forsyth Road, he enjoys the fruits -- and veggies -- of his labor.
Jason is also a bona fide bibliophile, a lover of books. He is a 52-year-old self-described, old-fashioned "want to hold the book in my hand" kind of fellow.
When he's not sorting Chiquita bananas from Costa Rica or stacking containers of ripe, red strawberries from Plant City, Florida, you can usually find his eyes glued to the pages of a science fiction thriller or tales of the Old West.
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Books allow him to travel to far-away galaxies or put on a cowboy hat without leaving the comfort of his chair.
That's why Thursday has been bookmarked on his calendar for a long time. It's the opening day of the 48th annual Friends of the Library Old Book Sale. Jason considers Macon's gigantic literary yard sale at Central City Park among the most joyful weeks of the year.
There will be more than 100,000 books in 25 categories, and Jason is about 62.4 pounds heavier when he exits with the 40 or so books he can stuff into his duffel bag. That's quite a sack of potatoes, even for a produce manager.
This year's sale, which begins Wednesday night with a preview party for Friends members and runs through March 6, has presented quite a dilemma for the affable Kroger employee.
Jason is usually among the early arrivals on opening day, securing his place in line before the doors swing open at 10 a.m. He has earned his stripes. He has stood in the pouring rain and shivered in the freezing cold.
"When they announced March 3 was the first day, I was horrified," he said. "That's my mama's birthday."
In a way, it's somehow fitting, since Mary Brownlee instilled the love of reading in the youngest of her three children.
Jason isn't a guy who simply sends his mom a birthday card or just calls her up and wishes her a happy 79 years on Earth. He takes the day off and drives to Barnesville to spend the morning and afternoon with her.
When he explained about being double booked, so to speak, she allowed him to plea bargain. Mary is involved with sacred harp music at the Emmaus Primitive Baptist Church in Thomaston.
"She said she would be OK with me going to the book sale on Thursday if I would come to the singing at her church on Saturday," he said.
Jason became a page-turner when he was 14 years old and his family was on a trip to Florida. He was bored riding in the car.
"We stopped somewhere, and I saw this book about Conan the Barbarian sitting there," he said. "It had a fancy cover and cost 15 cents. I was hooked."
At Windsor Academy, where he graduated in 1981, he had a teacher who also worked part time at a bookstore at the Macon Mall. The teacher would remove the covers off the books when they went out of circulation and give them to the students.
When Jason was a sophomore in high school, he had a part-time job bagging groceries at the old Kroger at Eisenhower and Pio Nono. He later moved down Eisenhower to the Kroger across from the mall. He went full time with the grocery chain in 1988, and worked at the Baconsfield store before transferring to Forsyth Road 10 years ago.
There, he struck up a friendship with loyal customer Cathy Ivey, a longtime volunteer with Friends of the Library. Since 1968, the FOL has contributed more than $2 million to the public library system through proceeds from the book sale, including $80,000 last year.
Jason had no clue what to expect the first time he wandered into the sale's former venue in the Long Building at Central City Park 15 years ago. Some friends had told him about it, and he went on the weekend.
Now, he has learned to get there at least a half-hour before the start to stake his spot around the science fiction tables. After all, the early drones get the bookworms.
He loves talking with people around him in line and along the rows he frequents filled with Westerns, military history and architecture. They may be total strangers, but he feels a kinship with them in the quest for bargain books.
One year, he was the first to arrive. Well, sort of
"I didn't know the dates, but I knew it had to be getting close," he said. "When I called someone, they told me they thought it was that day. So I clocked out at work. When I got there, I said, 'Where is everybody?' I was in the right place three weeks early."
Another time, he was in a throng of shoppers in a photograph published in The Telegraph.
Well, you can't exactly make out his face in the picture -- just his back cover.
"It's my back," he said, laughing. "I'm wearing blue jeans and a white shirt. My mama recognized me right away. You can't fool Mama. She can pick out her young 'uns. Sure enough, it was me, ... loading up some books."
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. He can be reached at email@example.com.