Five-Colleges Book Sale Sets Attendance Mark

Sunday, April 20, 2014
Lebanon — About halfway through Day One of the annual Five-Colleges Book Sale Saturday, book dealers Frank and Sue O’Brien were whittling through large stacks of books that they had plucked from tables around Lebanon High School, choosing which ones to buy and then sell through their online business.

The couple, who had driven up from Westfield, Mass., for their fifth Five-Colleges event, took each book and flipped it over. Using either their smartphone or a device called a Socket scanner, they were able to tell how the book was selling online — Are there already several copies of that title on eBay? How much is it selling for on Amazon? — which helped them to decide whether to buy it.

Scanners, the O’Briens and other dealers said, are not an entirely new phenomenon. The couple bought theirs for several hundred dollars in 2007, a few years into their online book-selling forays, which had replaced their tradition of selling books at flea markets.

But every year, the couple sees more and more new faces arriving on the book sale circuit with little dealing experience but plenty of gadgets. The O’Briens — who have traveled as far as Arizona for book sales but called Five-Colleges one of the best — purchased their scanner just to keep up with the competition, which intensifies all the time.

“Everyone gets scanners and thinks they know what they’re doing,” Sue O’Brien said.

They’re different, Frank O’Brien said, laughing. “We know we don’t know what we’re doing.”

The proliferation of book barcode scanners was just one of the ways that the Five-Colleges Book Sale has changed since it began in 1962. Alumni of the five colleges — Mount Holyoke, Simmons, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley — collect thousands of donated books and then sell them, usually for just a few dollars, to fund scholarships for students in the Twin States.

Vassar alumna and former trustee Sylvia Nelson, of Hanover, said when she started volunteering for the sale about 25 years ago, books were sorted in the basement of the Dartmouth College president’s home.

“We started small,” she said, smiling.

Today Nelson and some 200 other volunteers spend weeks sorting at the Whitman Communications building on Water Street, and “people just know of us,” she said. Folks wait to donate their books — or to expand their collections — until the annual springtime gathering.

For security reasons, some old insider tricks were outlawed this year, as well: Committed dealers traditionally have shown up a day or two before the sale opening, leaving unmarked backpacks or boxes in a line in front of the door to hold their spots.

In today’s world, leaving a bunch of unmarked packages outside a school was a no-go, and when a janitor noticed on Friday morning, officials set up a number system, similar to a deli counter. (The O’Briens arrived by noon Friday and were eighth in line, joining in an estimated 75 to 100 people who stampeded through the doors when they opened at 9 a.m. Saturday.)

There are changes for the industry as a whole, as well: Book sales are in the midst of a turbulent evolution as the Internet and electronic readers pressure the trade.

Nevertheless, several volunteers, dealers and casual shoppers on Saturday said the Five-Colleges Book Sale is an uplifting demonstration of people’s love for books — holding them in their hands, feeling their pages, even smelling them.

“Books are books,” said Phyllis Fox, of Hanover, sitting against a row of lockers thumbing through a tall stack of cookbooks. “There’s nothing like a book.”

Fox was doing her best to be selective, she said, but so far had placed a few books in her “keep” pile, with no “discard” pile to be found. She flipped through the pages of one book, Memories with Food at Gipsy House by Felicity and Roald Dahl, running her fingertips over the photographs on the pages.

“I may have to put that in my pile,” she said. “Look at this.”

Marcia Frederick, a volunteer representing Mount Holyoke and one of the tri-chairwomen of the sale, along with Cindy Heath and Cindy Kordys, said the event was a “win-win” for donors and buyers from all backgrounds. Libraries play an important role for lower-income families, she said, but borrowing a book is “not the same as having your own book, and that’s something pretty special,” she said.

“I’ve seen kids come in with a $5 bill and just be happy for hours,” she said.

Frederick said a record number of people — 1,600 — attended the sale on Saturday, with 95 volunteers on hand to help. Last year, the group collected $43,000 on Saturday, and organizers estimate this year’s results will exceed that.

“I was just amazed,” Frederick said Saturday evening. She acknowledged being nervous because the timing of the sale coincided with the Easter weekend. But then the doors opened Saturday morning and “a crush” of people flooded into the gym.

“We were very pleased,” she said.

Outside the building, Louis Fortier, a legal translator and advocate for preserving the French language in Quebec, was packing six large cardboard boxes into the ski box atop his Volvo. Fortier made the three-hour drive from Sherbrooke, Quebec, outside Montreal, for his first Five-Colleges book sale, picking up dozens of reference books for himself for less than $200.

He said his work advocating for small independent bookstores re-enforces his sense that books aren’t dead, even if his teenage children try to tell him otherwise.

“They keep telling me, ‘Dad, everything’s on the Internet,’ and I don’t think it is,” he said.

Nelson, the Vassar volunteer, agreed. Standing in the gymnasium, she surveyed the floor, which was crowded with dozens of tables of books and humming with people. More people — and more books, from categories ranging from humor to mathematics to Civil War to oddments, and this year’s fast-selling categories of health, self-help and gardening — were packed throughout the cafeteria and hallways, as scores of volunteers worked to keep everything moving.

“We keep thinking everybody’s got an iPod or whatever, or they’re reading on something else,” Nelson said, surveying the scene. “But clearly, they’re not.”

Editor’s Note: The sale continues from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at Lebanon High School, with all items half price. Maggie Cassidy can be reached at or 603-727-3220.

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