Ithaca’s Booming Book Sale

It may seem an unlikely place for camping – the sidewalk on Esty Street in downtown Ithaca – but each spring and fall, it suits David Wilson and Charles Nagy just fine.

The owners of Selling Tales bookstore in Hackettstown, New Jersey, pitch their tent and unfold lawn chairs in front of the huge green warehouse that’s home to the Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library Book Sale. It’s the eighth largest library book sale in the U.S., according to the blog Literary Tourist.

Wilson and Nagy arrive a few days in advance to be among the very first to ferret out the best bargains at the semiannual sale. “They’ve been first in line for a couple of years,” says book sale Co-Coordinator Beryl Barr. The queue typically snakes down the block and around the corner.

Like all opening day entrants, they can only purchase up to 50 items at a time without having to go out and get back in line. It makes it fair, Barr says, since so many people want to get into the warehouse for the prime pick of science fiction titles, puzzles and games; the best of which fly off the shelves the first day.

Obviously, it is not your ordinary book sale by any stretch. Held each May and October, it lasts the better part of three weeks, with prices decreasing each day until what is left before the bag sale sells for a dime or a quarter. Nearly 300 volunteers work for months in the warehouse before each sale, sifting through 800,000 items – books of all types, CDs, DVDs, games, magazines, artwork, records and VCR tapes – that are donated annually.

Wilson and Nagy are book dealers, but the event also attracts ardent bibliophiles, young families, and students and faculty from nearby Cornell University and Ithaca College. It attracts people looking to fill out collections, and just about anyone who loves a good book at a bargain price. Barr estimates that about 17,000 people come through the door for each sale.

Neither the donations nor the shoppers seem to be affected by the growing popularity of e-readers. “We have seen fewer new books at some sales, but not consistently and not at this sale,” Barr notes. “We have so many beautiful books that have been donated. People are still very happy to have books in their hands.”

The books are divided into 80 categories; the building is so vast that a map of the floor plan is given to every patron so they can find their way around. Volunteers constantly restock shelves as items are sold.

“It is absolutely the best place to go book shopping,” wrote Ithacan Debbie Clover on the Friends of the Tompkins County Library Facebook page. “I’ve built a whole personal library from the FOTL book sale. In fact, I go every weekend for both the spring and the fall sales. It’s not to be missed. And they can always use volunteer helpers.”

Barr has headed the effort for the past 10 years; her New Zealand accented-voice over the loudspeaker is familiar to regulars. Many of the volunteers have been there as long or longer. They are retired teachers and former librarians who enjoy working in their favorite sections: cookbooks, history, paperback and hardcover mysteries, and young adult and children’s literature, to name a few.

Others volunteers come from various community organizations. They sign up to work on specific days, mostly at the checkout.

This year on January 25, 16 students from Ithaca College came to the warehouse as part of the school’s Martin Luther King Day of Service, and sorted thousands of books and hefted almost 100 boxes.

The coming together of the community for the book sale has been a tradition since 1945. It originated to help raise funds to purchase books for the library. Now, nearly 70 years later, it and the Tompkins County Library Foundation cover the library’s entire acquisition budget. The book sale’s contribution is $250,000 annually. The money also benefits the entire Finger Lakes Library System, which receives $60,000 a year to distribute to libraries throughout the region. The Friends group also offers competitive grants to libraries and nonprofits for programming, and opens up the sale itself on special days to seniors, students and other groups.

Some of the sale’s most exciting offerings end up in Collector’s Corner, Barr says, a remodeled and expanded space in the warehouse. It is where book sale customers find rare and vintage books, first editions, signed copies, collectible records, ephemera, toys and valuable works of art.

“One year, someone donated a Jewish cookbook from the 1880s; really a book about how to set up and run a kosher household,” Barr tells me. “We did a little research and found out it was the first book of its kind to be published in the United States.”

They contacted Sotheby’s, and in an auction of Judaica, it sold for $7,000, astounding book sale organizers.

“It was the only item we’ve ever sent to auction like that,” Barr says. “Anything pre-1900 we usually check up on, and we have found valuable stuff. It usually ends up in our Collector’s Corner. But we don’t catch everything.”

At the end of the sale, everything that’s left over (after nonprofit organizations from Tompkins County have taken what they want) is picked up by Better World Books, Giggle or other book recycling organizations. The warehouse is cleared from top to bottom and preparations begin for a new sale.

“We start all over again,” Barr concludes.

Book prices drop each day. Go to booksale.org/sale/prices.php for details. The book sale’s website is booksale.org.

Dates of the Sale
This year’s sale to benefit the Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library starts on Saturday, May 3 at 8 a.m. and continues May 4-5, 10-12 and 17-20. The Friends will be holding a member-only presale on Tuesday April 29 from 6 to 7 p.m. Only Friends at the $100 level will be permitted inside and there is a 25-item limit. New Friends may join at the door; cash only.

Tompkins County Library
The Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library Book Sale have come up with another way to raise money for the Finger Lakes Library System. In 2013, a group of volunteers designed and sewed a huge quilt around a book-related theme. The quilt, with the “Book Shelf” theme, was on display for the May and October book sales. It was raffled and garnered about $3,800. The Friends are making this an annual event. This year’s quilt is based on the theme “Books Give You Wings.” It will be on display at the sales in May and October and tickets will be available for purchase at the sale.


by Louise Hoffman Broach