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Secrets of the Library Sale

An afternoon among the shelves

The bookcase in the corner near biography and classics is just like any other on the ground floor of the Wheaton Regional Library — except that behind this one lies a secret door.

The door — marked "Staff Only" — is revealed after just a quick pull of the bookshelf. Back here is the dungeon, an extra storage area for the Friends of the Library Montgomery County Book Sale's never-ending stream of donations. Paperbacks dominate, but it's not hard to find sets of encyclopedias or hardbacks. Three boxes even hold multiple copies of the same book that the sale has been getting rid of, one copy at a time, for several years.

Jim Ludlum, the business manager of the book sale, noted that the dungeon is probably not the healthiest place to work, but it's a necessary overflow area where the book sale can hold its growing collection of books.

That isn't the only surprising thing about the permanent book sale, which has been housed in its current location since 1988, when the library no longer needed a storage area for newspapers and magazines. Originally conceived as a way to prevent the library from simply throwing away the titles weeded from its circulation, the sale came under the Friends of the Library in 1999.

On a recent Thursday, the book sale had received at least 30 donations, from a single book to 11 boxes full of novels, hardcover art books and academic tomes. At the same time, a recycling company loaded several bins full of books onto their trailer truck to haul away.

The trucks are regular visitors at the store, where donations are so brisk that paperbacks that don't sell after 90 days, or books that are missing pages or in serious disrepair, are recycled. Non-profits are allowed to sort through these piles before the recycling trucks come, but even with hundreds of customers a week, there's plenty to send to become pulp.

According to Ludlum, about half of the books donated are eventually sold, and half of books in the recycling pile are used by non-profits. He estimates that the sale receives 1 million donated items a year. 

A significant number of books come from individuals who drop off anywhere from one book to whole collections, but the Wheaton book sale is also the first stopping point of any book discarded from the circulation of the county's 21 library branches. A part-time staff member spends 20 hours a week simply collecting and sorting the paperbacks and hard covers weeded from shelves across the county.

On Thursday afternoon, there were two kinds of shoppers: ones with particular titles in mind — like the woman who buys out the entire stock of Ken Follett, Michael Crichton and John Grisham for a book club — and casual browsers — like the woman who selects several VHS tapes up for sale.

The customer with the VHS tapes asks Judy Karo, a staff member who's in charge of the store today, how people can read on a Kindle or other ebook reader. Both she and Karo agree, it's just not the same.

She's not alone. Another customer piled the counter full of trade paperbacks. Tom Ichinowski, another volunteer, counted up her total out loud, as the woman realized she had busted her budget for today's visit. Again.

"I'm … sorry?" Ichinowski said.

The individual prices are deliberately cheap, though.

"We shoot for 15 to 20 percent of the cover price," Ludlum said. "With exceptions, of course."

Art books or rarer editions have a special shelf in the bookstore, or are sold on eBay.

Volunteers like Ichinowski make up a large portion of the book sale's staff. They often take personal care of a section, like romance or classics.

When donations arrive, they go first through the work area, where they are sorted by genre, waiting for a volunteer to price each book and put them out on the shelves.

The children's section is a popular corner of the book sale, complete with a tiny table for reading. Until recently, it was the charge of Paula Benoist-Falwell, a paid volunteer, who according to the other volunteers had energy and joy to spare for this important part of the sale.

Benoist-Falwell passed away on July 29, 2010, after a struggle with breast cancer. Karo said it was almost impossible to tell that she was fighting the disease for a lengthy amount of time. Signs posted on the bookcases and counters of the book sale included a photo of her and an obituary.

"She was an inspiration to all of us," Karo said. "Then two months ago she started not coming in as much."

Another woman walked up to the sale counter, with a shopping cart full of books to donate. After cleaning out her house, she had 11 boxes of books. Her first thought? Drop it off at the Wheaton Book Sale.

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