Smith College alumnae help, a book at a time

Annual sale turns cast-offs into cash for scholarships


Eight clear boxes hold the items on the auction block. The assortment includes the first 24 issues of Star Trek magazine, nine Nancy Drew mysteries in old dust covers, and a personal account of the Holocaust in text and drawings.

Also held under lock and key is a collection of science fiction books on space travel and rockets, some dating back to the 1940s.

"Maybe no one will want it," says Joan Griffith, "but I'm betting someone will."

Griffith has helped organize the annual Smith College Club used-book sale in Baltimore County for more than two decades, and when it comes to reading, she has an idea of what people want. This year's sale, which begins today and runs through Sunday, offers titles to suit a range of tastes.

All items at the sale are donated. Most, Griffith said, come from families that are moving and elderly couples that are downsizing.

When sale organizers open the packages, they're never quite sure what they're going to get.

"You open the box, and it's like a surprise present," Griffith said.

One donation for this year's sale included 27 boxes of science fiction novels. Griffith said the donor said he had read every one of the books. The sale began in 1958 as a fundraiser for scholarships and grants for Maryland women who wanted to attend Smith College. It is organized by the Smith College Club of Baltimore, a group of graduates of the Northampton, Mass., school.

Griffith said the club received a letter about five years ago from a Baltimore woman who received a scholarship to Smith because of sale proceeds.

"She was the first member of her family to go to college, and her parents wanted her to stay in Baltimore, but Smith gave her over $10,000 in a grant for her first year and that made the difference," Griffith said. "She'd lived in Baltimore for 18 years, really didn't know anything about how people lived in other places, and we changed her life."

Sale organizer Ame Laeyendecker would not say how much the event has raised in past years. This year, 50,000 items are for sale.

Laeyendecker also attended Smith with the help of a scholarship. She gives back by volunteering at the sale. This will be her fifth year.

Laeyendecker said volunteers were previously all Smith graduates. But because the sale has grown, the club gladly welcomes anyone willing to help.

This year, more than 100 volunteers are working on the sale. Some categorized and priced donations. Setup began Tuesday in the Exhibition Hall at the state fairgrounds in Timonium. In the week, the volunteers unpacked 1,380 boxes and displayed items on the appropriate tables.

The sale is something book dealers and collectors look forward to every spring, Laeyendecker said. The club sends out 7,000 mailers to previous patrons every year, she added, and if they're even a little late coming, the phone calls start pouring in.

Admission to the sale is free - except for the first hour, starting at 10 a.m. today. Some people wait in line for hours and pay $10 for the privilege of having the first crack at the items.

Laeyendecker compared the rush of 100 to 200 serious book dealers and collectors to "the running of the bulls."

"About 15 minutes before the sale, I go out and give a pep talk about appropriate behavior. No pushing, no shoving. These folks are so focused, so directed, that they're willing to pay the $10, willing to wait outside, willing to fight the throng," Laeyendecker said.

The books remaining after today and tomorrow's sale will be half-price from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Then the sale closes for an hour. From 6 p.m. until closing at 8 p.m., books are "all you can carry" for $5.

"I'm always amazed what a kick people get out of an armload of books," Laeyendecker said, "and how serious they are about Friday morning."

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