On her way out of the house Sunday morning, Jan Carpenter didn’t have time to find matching shoes.
“My husband said we had to go, we had to get to the book sale,” Carpenter said, pointing down to the mismatched purple clogs on her feet. “At least they’re the same brand.”
The fervor and anxiety seemed warranted, because book sale buyers weren’t shopping – they were hunting.
On the last day of the Wake County Library annual book sale, patrons waited in line for more than an hour to be among the first let in when the doors opened at 9 a.m. Throughout the day, the swishing sound of cardboard boxes dragging along the floor echoed throughout the Jim Graham Building of the State Fairgrounds.
The boxes went for $3 apiece, filled with prizes culled from the thousands strewn about on tables labeled “Self Help,” “Romance” and “History.” Buyers came seeking some laughs and tears, maybe a bit of woodworking advice or perhaps a prized Portuguese fish stew.
Wake County Library deputy director Ann Burlingame estimates that 16,000 people sift through 350,000 books over the four-day sale, which has been going on for over three decades. Most books are donated throughout the year or pulled from library shelves after a lifetime of check-ins and check-outs. Burlingame said the library nets between $90,000 and $150,000 each year, which is then deposited in the county’s general fund.
“The libraries are funded through the general fund; it takes about $20 million to operate a system of this size,” Burlingame said. “This is our annual contribution to the general fund.”
The book sale deals in discarded enlightenment. Someone somewhere either loved or hated each title and wanted it to live on when they were finished – or at least wanted it off their shelves.
“One thing that amazes me is the way people value the written word,” Burlingame said. “No one wants to just throw a book away. So much of this is readers sharing books they think will benefit others. I’m honored to be a part of that passing on of these books from one citizen to another.”
Mercedes Gosby pored over the foreign language section for help with her Japanese. Gail Lewter looked for anything inspirational.
Luke Hallam sought greater understanding of his mother and 1980s British politics in a three- inch-thick Margaret Thatcher autobiography.
“My mom was a supporter of her, and I don’t think I am,” Hallam said. “But I just thought the best way to understand her is through her words.”
There’s also a market within the market. In this predominantly analog arena, some carried scanners linked to online marketplaces, telling them whether the average price fetched online was worth tossing the book in their box.
Karen Mellendorf teamed up with her son Kyle and each had a scanner connected to a Bluetooth earpiece telling them simply “Yes” or “No.” Karen said they’re usually happy with $3-$4 a book. Kyle said values fluctuate by genre.
“It depends on the book,” Kyle Mellendorf said. “Self-help and history are pretty good, arts and crafts are almost always terrible.”
Burlingame said she isn’t put off by the vendors who attend the book sales, saying that from time to time, some vendors are allowed to look through the library’s coffers, with the library getting a fee.
“We just want to get as much as we can for these books,” Burlingame said.
The hard reality for those pushing their books along the floor, resembling Sisyphus possibly pushing a copy of “The Myth of Sisyphus,” is that the contents of their 30 pound or more boxes, and every other book in the 95,000-square-foot Jim Graham building could fit in digital form on one tablet stowed away in one backpack.
Shoppers quickly dismissed that idea. They viewed their boxes as treasure chests, not burdens. They preferred the turn of the page to the swipe of a screen.
“I want to feel the book,” Courtney Pisano said, noting she was looking for anything with dragons, magic and a female lead character. “Plus it’s cheaper to buy them this way.”