Used-book sale promises voluminous, storied fare

Books from Harriss library among items available

April 15, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

She has said it before, but this year, Joan Griffith says she means it: This really is the best offering of books she has seen.

There's the lifetime collection of one man who belonged to several fiction and mystery book clubs in the 1930s and 1940s. There's an unusually voluminous selection of tomes from three men who apparently taught - and exhaustively read - history. And there are about 1,000 books from the personal library of noted Baltimore author, critic and newspaperman R.P. Harriss, including a trove of inscribed volumes. Some even contain personal correspondence between Harriss and the books' authors.

All are on sale this weekend at Smith College Club's annual used-book sale, now in its 46th year and still organized by Smith alumnae from the Baltimore area. The sale raises money for scholarships and grants for Maryland women attending the Northampton, Mass., college.

"I've never had a collection like this before," said Griffith, the sale's organizer of more than 20 years, as she pulled one treasured tome after another out of boxes to stock the sale tables.

"It's just a window into not only a different century, but also a different era. Baltimore is - was - really quite a small town, and names resonated, especially those vivid Baltimore personalities like Gerald Johnson, H.L. Mencken and R.P. Harriss."

The sale, held for years in the Towson Armory before it moved three years ago to the Maryland Exhibition Hall of the Timonium fairgrounds, begins at 10 a.m. tomorrow, when early-bird customers - primarily serious collectors and dealers - pay $10 for the first crack at the books. Admission is free for the sale's duration - from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. tomorrow, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.

The sale itself is something of the literary equivalent of an old Hecht's red-dot sale or the famous wedding dress dash at Filene's Basement in Boston.

"When we open those doors," Griffith said, nodding to the exhibition hall entrance, "people come at us like water out of a fire hose."

These books are not shelved in the attractive displays of a Barnes & Noble or a well-stocked independent bookstore. Rather, book-buyers must wade through the volumes - spines up, organized by genre - on table after table. The offerings are increasingly picked over as the weekend stretches on, but they also get cheaper. Everything is half-price on Sunday until 6 p.m., when customers are charged $5 for all the books they can carry in their own two arms. (Boxes and bags are allowed for post-purchase loading only.)

Of the five moving vans full of books at the sale, Griffith is clearly most thrilled at the collection from Harriss, who died in 1989, and his wife, Margery, a Baltimore public school English teacher and vice principal who died last year.

The couple's daughter, Clarinda Harriss, the English department chairwoman at Towson University, decided to donate 40 crates of books to the sale this year in an attempt to thin out the library of what could be one of Baltimore's most bookish families.

"My mother was an educator for at least 60 years, and my father was an editor with The Evening Sun, the Paris branch of the International Herald Tribune and the News American," Clarinda Harriss said. "So needless to say, print is a big thing for us."

Harriss is well aware of the treasures in her parents' sizable library.

"There are two ways that bookish people view books," she said. "One is that they are collectibles, and the other is that they are things to read and you can write in them if you want or dog-ear the pages if you want. I was brought up to not be too sentimental about books."

Once, when she was 5 years old, Harriss nibbled the edges of every page in a very old Tenniel-illustrated copy of Alice in Wonderland. The volume fell apart.

"All my parents ever said about it was, `My, isn't she clever. She ate the page numbers off but could read so well that she put the pages back in order by reading the text,'" Harriss recalled.

Harriss said there's only one book she might have unintentionally given away: an illustrated first American edition of Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

"I think I know what I might have done with it, but if it accidentally got into those sale boxes, I'd be absolutely suicidal," she said. "Boy, if it turns up there, someone should buy it, and I'll buy it back from them. There'd be a finder's fee for sure."

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