The annual Smith College Club used-book sale has been called Baltimore's best red tag sale for bibliophiles - the literary equivalent of the famed wedding dress dash at Boston's Filene's Basement. But with offerings that include inscribed or signed books by such celebrity authors as Anne Rice, Bill Bryson and Tom Clancy, this year's sale, which starts today, may also be the closest the state fairgrounds in Timonium gets to being compared with Sotheby's.
Also among the 50,000 titles piled on 140 tables in the Exhibition Hall are: a book coauthored by Pam Shriver inscribed to another local tennis pro, Andrea Leand; a coffee-table book of photography with what may have been Marilyn Monroe's last photo shoot; and signed works by Laura Lippman, Jonathan Kellerman and Sebastian Junger.
One of the more intriguing inscriptions is inside a Bob Greene book called Hang Time: Days and Dreams with Michael Jordan, which has the message: "Keep on jumping, white boy. Happy Hanukkah." It's signed "MJ."
Sale organizers don't know for sure whether the inscription was written by Michael Jordan, but it looks authentic.
"This is a big year for inscribed books by remarkably famous people," says Joan Griffith, the sale's organizer for more than 20 years.
There are also six tables of children's books, several rare collections of American history published by local newspapers, and limited editions of illustrated classics printed by a book club. The largest category is mystery novels, said Griffith, a former English teacher.
Now in its 47th year, the annual spring rite draws a mix of casual and serious readers, book dealers and collectors - many of whom wake before dawn to stand in line like rock fans waiting for concert tickets.
To enter during the first, frenzied hour of the sale from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. today, a $10 donation is requested.
Admission is free for the duration of the sale: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. today, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. tomorrow and noon to 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Organized by alumnae of Smith College, the sale raises money for scholarships and grants for Maryland women attending the private women's college in Northampton, Mass. Alumnae declined to say how much they expect to raise this year, but Griffith says proceeds from all the past sales have enabled the group to establish a $700,000 endowment fund for the scholarships.
Donated books, select magazines, audio recordings and videos are collected year-round at a warehouse in Mount Washington, where volunteers price and sort them.
At the fairgrounds, the books, magazines, videos and recordings are piled on tables by topics ranging from art to sociology. About 60 of the most valuable books and collector's items are set aside for a silent auction.
But, says Ame Laeyendecker, a 1991 Smith graduate, "We always miss something. And that's what people are counting on."
Prices range from 50 cents for a paperback to more than $100 for rare or first-edition books. Most books are priced in the $3 to $6 range.
All day Sunday, books are reduced to half-price. Then, after being closed for an hour, the sale continues from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., when buyers can load up all they can carry for $5 and $2 for every load after that. No suitcases or carts can be used until buyers get past the registers.
Laeyendecker laughs as she recalls the antics of people piling books on the backs of the tallest, biggest friends they can find.
"They are in a dead run," Griffith says. "At that point, the books are so close to free."