The annual scramble for bargains Sale: Buyers storm the Smith College event looking for a good read as well as a good deal.

April 04, 1997|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

By the time you read this, the early birds, collectors and dealers already will be waiting outside the Towson Armory with their duffel bags, shopping bags and lists. Some will have been there since sunup, just to get first crack at the treasures inside.

The doors won't open until 10 a.m., but when they do, the first minutes of the annual Smith College Book Sale will be like the storming of Filene's Basement -- a mad, fevered rush.

"They don't care who's in their way," says Fran Saybolt, 58, Smith class of 1960.

She says this on a quiet Wednesday, a calm-before-the-storm day when volunteers pull open hundreds of boxes collected in the past year. Thousands of books cover the tables in the large, open room. Thousands more are still in their boxes. This year's collection numbers nearly 45,000 books packed in about 1,500 boxes. And there are music books, magazines and classical records.

Peggy Fulford, 81, class of 1937, calls it "the last, best bargain in Baltimore."

About a dozen women, two with their husbands in tow, worked on the tables Wednesday morning. Others came in the afternoon and yesterday. They browse while they work, pausing over a P. D. James mystery, a John Grisham page-turner, a textbook struggled through in college, or a historical narrative enjoyed on a lazy afternoon. It is hard not to linger. It would be like passing an old friend on the street without stopping to say "hello."

Gigi Franyo, class of 1967, has no time for such sentiment. She is a model of efficiency at the travel books table.

"I got assigned to an area I have no interest in. If I were in fiction, it would be another story," says Franyo, 52. "I'd be putting a few down that I wanted maybe to read."

At the science table, Dr. Dick Pembroke, 86, bearded and white-haired, takes his time.

"Science is my science," he says, lifting from his stack a clean copy of 1996 Nobel prize winner Murray Gell-Mann's "The Quark and the Jaguar." "This is a very good book. 'Course, I can't afford it," he says with mock seriousness. "They want $8."

He moves on to a book on nanosystems and notes the crisp, pristine pages. "I don't think the guy who owned this has opened it."

Local Smith alumnae started their book sale 38 years ago. The first time out they had a few boxes and a stall beside a raw bar in the old city market at Charles Street and North Avenue. They raised about $1,000 for their alma mater's scholarship fund.

Since then, the sale has become an annual spring rite. And, after brief stays in Cross Keys and the B & O Railroad station on Mount Royal Avenue, it has found a home in Towson. Recent zTC sales have brought in $25,000 to $30,000. The money helps area women with financial aid to attend the college in Northampton, Mass.

It all starts with books -- paperbacks, romances, the libraries of retired couples. The sorting process usually ends with the volunteers running up a tab.

"It's like salted peanuts," says Fulford. "The next carton, you can't resist it. What's it going to be? You finish that carton and then you want another."

As the volunteers set up Wednesday, Saybolt and Joan Griffith came upon a huge, gilt-edged family Bible from 1852. Its spine and front cover had fallen off, but had not been lost. Griffith, co-chair from the class of '61, found dried flowers and leaves pressed between the fragile pages.

Saybolt wondered if the Bible held the list of family names, of births, deaths and marriages. Many in the last century recorded life's great moments in the family Bible. Griffith, 57, kept looking. Then she found the chronicle.

"Fran, you're right. Here it is," she says, staring down at the fading, cursive script. One name on the list belonged to Edward Rider Foster, perhaps of Riderwood. Griffith turned another page. "Oh, look, this gives you the history of the family, all of the children. Oh, my dear, and all of the deaths. That's amazing."

They put the book aside. They want to do more research. It might go on sale next year.

"That's what keeps people sorting," says Griffith. "It's the hunt for the thing that connects you to an earlier time. It's a funny word to use, but you get a rush when you pick up a book that has an inscription." She recalls finding E. M. Forster pamphlet published by the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. "To hold a book in my hand that Virginia Woolf might have touched, that was a rush."

Perhaps that is the magic of books. Perhaps that is what makes people line up hours ahead of time. Perhaps that is what accounts for the ruthlessness of some buyers. The Smith women have known customers to hide their finds like squirrels setting up a winter stash.

Some of the worst offenses happen just before the half-price sale ends on Sunday and the all-you-can-carry-for-$2 sale begins.

"Between 5 and 6 we'll check all the boxes under the table," says Saybolt, "look behind the doors and in the corners and put everything back on the tables."

That last sale often finds a father in his beast of burden mode making his way through the aisles, an armload of books in hand. But it's never enough, says Fulford.

"The kids will say, 'Come on, dad. You can take one more.' "

Book sale

When: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. today ($5 donation between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. only); 10 a.m to 6 p.m. Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday (books half-price); 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday (all you can carry for $2)

Where: Towson Armory, Washington and Chesapeake avenues

Call: 410-821-6241

Pub Date: 4/04/97

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