Book lovers line up for three-day Smith College Sale

March 25, 1994|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Sun Staff Writer

This is the weekend addicted readers turn to Towson.

The occasion is the annual Smith College Club's used book sale, an event that is part literary land rush and part title-finding frenzy.

With more than 50,000 books and records spread out on tables in the Towson Armory, this year's offering is one of the all-volunteer organization's most ambitious. By the time the sale is over, this pandemonium of print will net the Northampton, Mass., school's scholarship fund about $30,000. It will also delight a lot of readers and collectors.

"We draw a fine line between making a profit and running a public service," says Joan Griffith, who has helped run 11 Smith College sales.

The Smith College Sale is a literary garage sale where the prevailing price hovers around $3 per volume. Even at that low price, many stubborn and thrifty readers wait until Sunday, the last day when prices are halved and halved again.

"Five dollars won't get you much elsewhere but it goes a long way here," says Marilyn Braiterman, a Smith alumna who is a rare book dealer.

For the past year her local alumnae chapter have been gathering and sorting books in the basement of a York Road commercial building in the Rodgers Forge neighborhood.

The 125 volunteers, dressed in sensible shoes, smocks and turtleneck sweaters, take turns separating the F. Scott Fitzgeralds from the Julia Childs. The books are donated from all over Baltimore, but the majority tend to be contributed by people in the Roland Park-Guilford-Ruxton areas who are moving into retirement communities and who need to break up their personal libraries. This year's collections are heavy on biography, travel, household arts, fine art and at least eight copies of Amy Vanderbilt's rules of decorum.

The largest donor to this year's sale was the estate of Dr. Huntington Williams, the city's health department chief. Some 95 cartons of books came from his extensive library. He carefully noted in each volume where he bought it and what he paid for it. One volume, for example, carried a stamp "withdrawn from Pratt Library," with a pencil note "Bought 1940 Peabody, 50 cents," meaning he had purchased the volume at the old Peabody Book Shop on Charles Street. Many of his books carry his bookplate printed with the motto "Cognosce Occasionem" ("recognize opportunity").

It's the kind of thing Smith sale devotees will line up early to buy when the three-day sale begins. "Friday is really very frantic. It's the dealers and the passionate collectors. It thins out in the middle of the afternoon, but by 5 p.m. there's a surge of people who don't want to take the day off," says Mrs. Griffith, a Roland Park resident and St. Timothy's School English teacher.

"On Saturday we'll get the serious readers, people who are addicted to books. By 1 o'clock in the afternoon, the families and children will start coming in. It amazes me how carefully a child will select a book."

Sunday is bargain day and people line up to buy books at half price. "We shut down for an hour on Sunday evening at 5, but reopen at 6. We get a spray of people through the door. They are very vigorous and competitive. There are individual book hoarders and dealers who just want to buy in quantity. We'll be wiped out of fiction and religion by the closing hour," Mrs. Griffith says.

Baltimore readers and book collectors circle their calendars for the sale. People who have been looking for a volume for years often emerge triumphant, with their found item and probably a half dozen more they never intended to buy.

Peggy Fulford, who was then living in Homeland, conceived the event in 1959 as a fund raiser for her school.

"The Vassar alumnae in Washington had a similar sale and I thought it might be a good idea if we tried one for Baltimore. So I had a tea at my house one afternoon. Maybe 14 or 16 came. I thought the sale might be a couple of tables in a church hall. Well, it took off and before long we couldn't hold it in a church. We had to rent stalls at the North Avenue Market," Mrs. Fulford says as she sits between piles of literature and biography.

The first sale was held at the old North Avenue Market at North and Maryland avenues. The women made change out of cigar boxes.

"One of our customers was a man who was very nice. He talked to us for a while but then made off with a cigar box full of money. It got into the papers. We had real publicity. Imagine that. People were saying, 'Stealing from those nice ladies,' " Mrs. Fulford recalled.

She holds up a paperback entitled, "There's Algae in the Baptismal Font."

"I wonder if I should put this on the religion or the humor table?"

The Smith College annual book sale begins today at 10 a.m. and runs to 8 p.m. at the Towson Armory, Washington and Chesapeake avenues, just west of York Road, about two blocks from Towson Commons.

Saturday hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday hours are noon to 5 p.m. (all books half off marked prices). From 6 p.m.-8 p.m., all the books you can carry are sold for $2 for the first armload, $1 for each additional haul.

There is no admission charge except today, when buyers will be charged $5 from 10 to 11 a.m.

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