The librarian who works weekends and whom I'm slightly scared of wasn't at the book sale on Sunday. She's a largish woman with a port wine stain on her forehead, and in a decade of going to the library, I have never seen her smile. Children do not run, shout or cry in her library. In fact, they barely breathe. When she's on the job, the loudest sound is the thin hum of computers that have replaced the index cards, and the faint rustling of turning pages. I suspect she's not a fan of the tri-annual sale, when the library rids itself of surplus books. For seven dollars, you get a grocery bagful of fiction, reference, photo books, children's classics and as many back issues of National Geographic's as one family could sanely handle.
It's as raucous a scene as can be found in any library, and I suppose it's not the weekend librarian's cup of tea. I go there even though I don't need more things to read, indeed, I donate books three or four times a year, and this time around found some items for sale that came directly from my shelves. I was tempted to buy back my Doonesbury collection--I had donated it in a moment of weakness--but resisted the impulse.
Still, I bought a few things. The complete works to date of David Guterson, a writer whose Snow Falling on Cedars I admire. A replacement King Rat because the middle 60 pages of my copy vanished some years ago during a move. Two *** for Idiots that need no explanation, nor does a mint Pocket Book edition of Harold Robbins The Piranhas.
Pawing through the stacks and boxes, I found myself in competition with immigrant families that, while their command of English might have been limited, displayed unbridled enthusiasm for the treasures offered. Asians and Latino children raced through the hallways while their parents filled grocery bags with everything from romances to Readers' Digest collections. An ancient man who might have been Vietnamese had appropriated a grocery store cart and filled to the brim with travel and computer books; the library volunteer at the checkout table had to call a staffer to decide how many bags equaled a shopping cart.
One stack caught my attention--twenty-or-so volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, circa 1999. A sign wedged between two tomes read, "Complete Set, $10." Someone had scratched out the ten and replaced it with a five. Twenty-three years ago, I bought a complete set of the EB for almost $1,000. It still presides over my small collection of reference works. I was tempted to buy this one too, so I'd have a separate set in my basement office. While I pondered, a brown-skinned little girl took the top volume, opened it randomly and started reading aloud, one small index finger tracing the line of print. Her mother, wearing a burnt-orange and green sari stood behind her.
"Did you want to buy these?" the mother asked me. I said no, I already had a set at home.
Did I use it much? I had to admit that I didn't any more. Like almost everyone, I relied on computers now.
"They are no longer printing them, you know," the woman told me and I answered that yes, I had read a few months ago that the Britannica people had decided to forego printed editions in favor of digital ones.
"Very sad," she said. "In my home in Delhi, we had these books and my father made us read 10 pages every day." I told her that when my family first came to the United States, my father had decided that, pound for pound, the World Book Encyclopedia was a better bargain, so we'd gotten that instead, one volume at a time from the Giant Food store that sold the set at a discount.
Soon the woman's husband appeared, a whip-thin man with a white short buttoned all the way to the neck. The family spoke a minute or two, and the father nodded. "I will purchase these if you do not." He and I found cardboard boxes to stack the books in; he paid for them and I volunteered to help carry the Britannicas to his car.
The weekend librarian of whom I am a little scared would have been proud.