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The Art of Shopping a Book Sale


The Calm Before the Storm

A quiet warehouse on Esty Street in downtown Ithaca is filled to the brim with books. This is the calm before the storm.

“Twice a year, we collect stuff, and we have a book sale for what we’ve collected,” said Kathy Weinburg,  coordinator of the Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library book sale.

Weinburg weaves through the aisles of books, showing off each of the 70 expertly sorted sections. With only two days until the first day of the sale, every shelf is filled, and books overflow onto boxes on the floor.

“We take books in, we sort them within an inch of their lives and then we sell them to the people that want them,” Weinburg said.

Books are set aside to be displayed throughout the sale at a warehouse on Esty Street

And that’s what they’re doing for the 272,000 items for sale this cycle.

The volunteer effort behind each book sale is as large as the sale itself. Hundreds of volunteers spend thousands of hours sorting, promoting and preparing for the comparatively short amount of time the customers will shop the sale.

“A lot of our volunteers have been here just short of forever. For book lovers, it’s a great place,” Weinburg said. She started as a volunteer herself, and still sorts books for the psychology section.

There are two kinds of sorters, rough sorters who organize the books into the 70 broader categories, and fine sorters who organize books on the selves within those sections.

“Each section is organized the way that each category sorter thinks that it should be. I [sort] alphabetically by topic, but then within a topic there is no order because after the shoppers have been here an hour, the order is gone anyway.”

Volunteers help customers during the sale.

Opening Weekend

There’s a line of people stretching across the sidewalk. Children, students and adults of all ages are waiting for the doors to open. Even though Saturday was the first day of the sale, there’s still a crowd on a sleepy Sunday morning.

Once the doors open, shoppers stream past the volunteers, grabbing flyers about this sale’s special feature, the circus section.

Two students are searching the sale for books, one is a newcomer and the other is an experienced shopper. Monica Chen and Amanda Boyle, both writing majors at Ithaca College, are among the more than 14,000 shoppers who visit each sale.

“This is my third sale, but I’ve been four times,” Boyle said. She is the one who told Chen, her friend and roommate, about the book sale.

Even though she had been told ahead of time about the size of the sale, Chen was still amazed by the collection.

“I was surprised by the number and selection of books,” Chen said. “What really surprised me was the high quality of the books here.”

Sections include everything from history to true crime.

The Art of Shopping

Finding books at the sale isn’t referred to as shopping. Here, it’s an art.

“The sooner you come to the sale, the wider the variety of books is,” Boyle explained. “So I come in with a list of books I want to buy or look for.”

The price drops throughout the sale are what keep customers coming back throughout the three-week sale.

“I’m planning on coming back for student night and dime day,” Boyle said. As the sale winds down, there are specials to attract shoppers. Senior day and student night fall on the Wednesday before the last weekend. Only seniors are allowed into the sale during the day, and students at night.

The last two days of the sale are when the prices really drop. On the aptly named dime day, customers can get any item at the sale for ten cents. Then on last day of the sale, bag day, shoppers are given plastic grocery bags to fill, each bag costs a dollar.

The sale will continue on Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays for the next two weeks.

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