National press coverage, 4 a.m. lineups and an erotica section—some of Trinity’s most dedicated volunteers discuss the growth and evolution of one of the country’s most popular book sales
by Liz Allemang
Surrounded by filing cabinets filled almost to capacity with newspaper clippings, archival material and photo albums, Friends of the Library founding member Helen (Pepall) Bradfield, recently retired Trinity librarian Linda Corman, and current Friends president Kathy Girvin gathered in the Friends of the Library office at the John W. Graham library to speak about the 40th anniversary of the Trinity College Annual Book Sale and how far it’s come.
The first annual Trinity College Annual Book Sale began humbly.
A brief announcement in the Summer 1976 edition of the Trinity College Bulletin mentioned a two-day sale, offering books (scholarly tomes sourced from Toronto’s best book store remainder bins via Oxford University Press made up the core of the collection, with “library cast-offs” filling it out) and refreshments, all for the modest admission fee of 50 cents.
Earning $2,100, a significant return considering the $10 initial pot, funded by the $2 memberships of the five founding members of the Friends of the Library— Jean (Griffin) Elliott ’61, president; Helen (Pepall) Bradfield ’60, and Catherine (Curry) Graham ’63, vice-presidents; Alice (West) Bastedo ’61, treasurer; and Lisa (Balfour) Bowen ’61, secretary—the Book Sale was, by all accounts, a surprise success. Well, by almost all accounts.
“The Provost at the time didn’t like that we were moving loads of books on dollies, rolling down the stairs ‘bump, bump, bump,’ ” says Bradfield. “We probably left a few marks on the stairs.”
Driven by alumni
The book sale was the first initiative organized by the Friends of the Library, a group formed in 1975 by alumni of the College. The group was modelled on the Trinity College Dublin Friends of the Library and organized initially by Elliott, with help from Beatrice Saunders, then the College’s librarian.
Some of the founding members are still volunteers with the sale. Bradfield, for example, can usually be found in the boardroom during the intense, now five-day event, working the Art section, or politely but firmly disappointing book dealers trying to negotiate an even better price on books that are already a steal. A not uncommon occurrence.
“I had one dealer last year who just wouldn’t stop,” says Girvin. “And I kept repeating the book-sale mantra: Our prices are so good that we can’t sell them for less.” “The idea has always been to set the price slightly higher than a dealer would pay for just scooping up, without giving it any thought, but still a bargain for far below what he would sell it for,” she says.
And when Girvin says “scooping up” you can take it literally: Some customers are so competitive that they will grab every book in a section they can carry, abscond to a corner and sort through the titles in relative privacy. The sale now has volunteers whose job it is to recirculate those discards. These are just some of the elements that have led to the growth and impressive success of the book sale, which now stocks 50,000 to 75,000 books in nearly 80 categories annually.
Those books are elicited, collected, stored, organized, priced, shelved and sold by a fleet of 200 to 275 volunteers, about 60 of whom work on the sale year-round.
Despite the evolution of the sale, its purpose—to support the projects and activities of Trinity’s then College Library, since renamed the John W. Graham Library—has remained constant.
Including that initial return of $2,100 (or $2,090 net), the Friends have raised more than $4 million for the library through the book sale, money that has been invested in, among other things, an endowment that helped pay for the transformation of the library into the space that it is today; a librarianship; and a healthy “rainy day fund.” There have also been significant investments in the rare books collection as well as contributions that have helped build, organize and maintain the library’s collections.
“The first investment by the Friends was in the cataloguing of John Strachan’s collection of books,” says Bradfield. “And then it became framing some of the nice visuals that we have, mostly posters from great libraries across the world.”
In 2015, in recognition of Linda Corman’s years of service to Trinity College, the Friends of the Library created an award in her name—$1,000 to support a graduate student enrolled in library or archival studies. And the Friends have also pledged $250,000 toward the current Trinity Archives construction project.
There are also many smaller projects that improve day-to-day life by covering some costs that may not have been accounted for by College budgets.
“I think the Friends even bought an air-conditioning unit for the rare books room,” Corman comments while searching through a filing cabinet to locate a copy of her speech commemorating the 10th Anniversary of the Friends of the Library.
“Unlike many other library ‘Friends’ groups, you don’t just focus on glamour items. You’ve bought carpets, paint, signs, microfiche, frames for posters and paid for cataloguing and chairs,” she reads, quoting her 1986 address to the Friends.
Even the books that don’t sell (usually about one-third) are often put to good use. One year, recalls Corman, leftover titles were donated to the YMCA, which was refurbishing yellow school buses and sending them to Ethiopia as mobile AIDS information centres. It was decided that the books would be donated as educational ballast for Ethiopian libraries, so they filled the bus with boxes of books.
Part of the success of the book sale— despite a cultural shift toward the increasing consumption of words online—is its range, which represents the diverse interests of the Trinity community, from collectibles like the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica to thrillers.
“To show how far we’ve come, we now have an Erotica section,” says Girvin.
“And it sells well,” adds Bradfield.
“We usually tuck it around the corner and all these people are gathered there until somebody comes along and they all scatter,” says Girvin.
“It’s next to the Divinity section,” says Corman.
“We do that on purpose,” smiles Girvin.
Rare finds—and unintended donations
As you would expect, the Friends and their sorters have come across some surprising donations, including money hidden between book pages.
Sometimes book sale customers have been surprised as well, with a few instances of individuals discovering that their own books had been quietly donated by a family member or friend, says Corman. A few have bought back their own books, sometimes unwittingly, says Girvin.
“We have calls from people who say, ‘I donated something and didn’t mean to.’ We have one now that’s a box of old photos and old letters. Another one had wedding pictures and an income tax return,” says Girvin, who reunited the box with its owners, following an only slightly uncomfortable phone call with the partner of the donor.
But there have also been an impressive number of “finds,” one of the best parts of the book sale, according to Bradfield. This is part of the lore and allure of the book sale, a reputation that only strengthens with each year, assisted, possibly, by the proliferation of social media means with which to brag to one’s friends about said “finds.”
Among the more memorable titles found at the book sale: a first-edition paperback of Lolita sold for “a couple of thousand dollars”; a very rare volume of Gwendolyn MacEwan’s poems; a first (and only?) edition of Margaret Atwood’s Double Helix; and a copy of Peyton Place (in a Churchill cover, which caused all three women to break into laughter). There was a series of beautifully (and expensively) leather-bound works by Goethe translated into Italian, donated by John Graham (after whom the library is named), who had served as the executor of an estate that included private-press editions from many of Europe’s finest 20th-century printing houses. And there was the anonymously donated 22nd edition of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, published in 1933 and complete with a misleading outer dust jacket—Die Heilige Schrift des Alten Bundes or The Holy Scripture of the Old Testament—as well as a silk bookmark embroidered with Hitler’s portrait and signature.
Some of the books in the sale have found their way to the John W. Graham library, including titles that have been added to the library’s important Churchill Collection.
An organizational feat—and national press coverage
For anyone thinking they can skip the crowds, know that the Friends have what Corman calls “a very practical and egalitarian approach” to the sale. On the subject of offering a pre-sale, she says, “If you let people in early they cream off all the best stuff. You’re going to weaken your market.”
In tandem with the growth of the sale has been an evolution of its organizational principles. The consideration of how books are stored to how they’re moved from storage on the day of the book sale is a marvel in project management and resourcefulness. Fifty-four volunteers work throughout the year, pricing, packing and sorting nearly 75,000 books for each sale. A small cadre of drivers and their coordinator also offer at-home pickup of donations throughout the year from many locations in the greater Toronto area.
Leading up to opening day, a human chain of hired students and volunteers dutifully moves the boxes from the basement to Seeley Hall, where they are then assigned to and sorted within their sections. The book sale’s popularity is such that it is given substantial coverage in publications like the National Post and the Toronto Star, and devotees vie for position on opening day: last year one attendee was so keen to be first in line that he arrived at Trinity at 4:15 a.m.—12 hours before the start of the sale.
No task is too small, no detail overlooked, and everybody pitches in. Guy Upjohn ’55, a former president of the Friends and active supporter of the library, has built bookshelves for the sale, and Jim Webb has also contributed to improvements in book display over the years. Alastair Grant ’55, a retired architect, even designed a chute to send leftover books winding down the back stairs for dispersal after the sale.
Bradfield, Corman and Girvin will be there for the 40th. When asked if they need a bouncer to keep the peace on opening day, Girvin noted that her husband, David, would be there to deal with the crowds rushing the door (“though he often refers to himself as the ‘greeter.’”)
In other words, if you’re planning to be there, go early.
The 40th Trinity College Annual Book Sale will take place Thursday, October 22 to Monday, October 26, 2015, at Seeley Hall, Trinity College, University of Toronto, 6 Hoskin Avenue. Opening day admission charge is $5. For more information, visit trinity.utoronto.ca