Somerset Maugham is having a robust year. Henry James, on the other hand, is way down.
Those are the results of an informal survey at Baltimore's most frenetic literary bazaar, the annual Smith College Club book sale at the Towson Armory today, tomorrow and Sunday. The event is in its 34th year. This is the weekend for used and low-priced editions of works by Balzac, Dickens, Thackeray and P.G. Wodehouse, Rosa Ponselle records and 1954 guide books to Rio.
"Just try buying the two big 'Oxford Anthology of English Literature' for $5. It just can't be done anywhere but here," said Joan Griffith, a book-sale volunteer who is also a St. Timothy's School librarian.
It takes 130 hard-working volunteers to haul and sort the annual inventory of 40,000 to 50,000 donated volumes, everything from a one-ounce paperback to a seven-pound reference book. Fiction is the largest category, but you can also buy military histories and Hebrew tracts. Prices begin at 50 cents and most volumes are in the $2 to $5 range. By Sunday night, when the final reductions are made, the price tumbles to $2 for all the books you can carry.
Throughout the year, donors clear their book shelves and give the books to the local Smith alumnae club, which stages the annual sale to raise money for scholarships. This year's offering includes the entire libraries from the estates of several old-line Baltimore families.
"There's a line we draw between doing a public service and running a serious business," Mrs. Griffith said, removing a biography of band leader Lawrence Welk that seemed out of place next to a volume on James Murray, the British lexicographer.
The Smith College volunteers seem to dress in an unofficial uniform. Nearly all wear turtle-necks and sensible shoes.
She said that book lovers converge on the annual sale to stock up on the classics that are increasingly hard to find at local bookstores and at the Baltimore County Public Library.
"We get so many customers who complain they can't find classic literature at the Baltimore County libraries. It's gotten so bad we're considering opening a permanent store to help students out," Mrs. Griffith said. She envisions a shop in the northeast area, easily accessible to students from Johns Hopkins and Towson State universities, and Goucher and Loyola colleges.
Peggy Fulford, a Hunt Valley resident and Smith alumna, lifted the idea for the book sale to aid her alma mater from a similar event in Washington organized and run by Vassar College graduates.
"It just mushroomed. I originally thought of it as being like a little church book sale," Mrs. Fulford recalled earlier this week.
The first Baltimore Smith College sale was staged at the old North Avenue Market, North and Maryland avenues.
"We called it Rare Books and Rare Beef," when it was at the market, Mrs. Fulford said. The sale moved to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's Mount Royal Station, where the books were set up on the oak passenger benches. Then for a while it was conducted at the Village of Cross Keys, but the merchants there did not take too well to book lovers taking too many parking spaces. For some time now, the book sale has been staged at the Towson Armory, Washington and Chesapeake avenues, adjacent to the Towson courthouse. The sale runs today until 8 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m., then from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.