Kris Culp, left, and Gina Calia-Lotz organize books for the… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
The volunteers who run next weekend's annual Smith College Book Sale are determined, patient and love the volumes they offer. They spend a year soliciting, then organizing, the donated books and entire libraries, then stage an annual springtime sales event that serious readers consider their own secret.
"We're praying for cold and rain," said Mary Anderson, president of the Smith College Club of Baltimore. "Bad weather brings us our best crowds."
For 52 years, Baltimore Smith College Club volunteers have been gathering and selling a yearly haul of about 50,000 used books. They wear pale yellow handmade cotton aprons, sweat shirts and very sensible shoes.
The club's annual three-day literary stampede begins Friday when the first customers swarm the sales tables at a Timonium Fairgrounds exhibition hall. The event is held throughout the weekend and ends April 11, when all that remains is substantially reduced in cost. The final hours, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., feature an all-you-can-carry price of $5. It's a Baltimore bargain-hunters' favorite.
So where do all these books come from?
"People in North Baltimore buy good books and treat them very well," said former Goucher College President Rhoda Dorsey, who is a Smith graduate and former club president. "They donate so much to us, and they are beautiful books."
And who benefits?
Kim Kufel, a Northeast Baltimore resident who graduated from City College in 2005, might not have been able to attend Smith College in Northampton, Mass., without the financial aid she received that had its origins at the sale.
"The book sale is the alums' way of bringing diversity to the school," said Kufel, who graduated from the college in 2009 with a degree in sociology and now works at the House of Ruth in Baltimore.
And while the club's volunteers want to send deserving young women to the college, they also want the books they collect to find good second homes in Baltimore.
"We believe the sale is a community service," said Dorsey. "The cost of children's books is almost prohibitive. There are people who come on the last day, when the prices are at their lowest, and buy their reading for an entire year. I love to watch this."
Anderson, who heads this year's event, said the club has a "greater than usual" number of books donated. Most are priced from $3 to $8, but some subject areas, such as upper-level calculus books published in the 1950s, are in high demand and can fetch from $10 to $40.
"People think that because a book is old, it's valuable," said Anderson. "This is not always the case. But the book you pick up at our sale is still an amazing bargain."
The family of art collector and Smith alumna Ryda Hecht Levi donated her collection of art books to the sale this year. There is a collection donated by a curator at the Walters Art Museum and numerous works of science fiction, as well as comic books. Another donor gave boxes of books related to military history. There are huge sections devoted to fiction, mysteries, history and biography.
Club members adopted a "no-censorship" policy this year and will be offering some works of erotica.
"These books were donated to us, and we're just going to put them out for sale," said Anderson.
She said that beyond the goal of the scholarships, her club wants to keep the name of the school "out there."
But underlying all their work is a desire to see good books recycled to new readers and to help individuals and families find a home for books that might have become a burden.
"There was a doctor in Roland Park who had so many books in his house there was scarcely room to walk," Anderson said. "We helped him out. He had 85 boxes in there."