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The Perfect Storm
The St. Louis YNCA Book Fair

by Michele Behan

#104, 24 September 2007

What happens when you mix a temperature of nearly 100 degrees, a severe thunderstorm and 576 people who paid $10 each for first shot at over one million books and records? While your average Joe might run the other way, those of us who suffer from what Nicholas Basbanes terms "the gentle madness" would call it the Perfect Storm.

The YMCA Book Fair, held on August 24-29 in St. Louis, Missouri, was heavily advertised as one of the largest book sales in the country, with over 1,000,000 donated books and records available for purchase.

I happened to be in St. Louis visiting family that week. What better way to see the U.S.A. than attend a local book sale? Formerly, I had only attended book sales in Maryland and Pennsylvania and wondered if a Midwestern sale would be different.

The Book Fair's opening day dawned hot and sunny in the midst of an oppressive St. Louis heat wave, with the previous day's temperature having reached a sweltering 100 degrees. The YMCA Book Fair's organizers devised an elaborate system for their paid preview evening on August 24th. Numbered tickets for the grand opening at 4:00 p.m., which cost $10 per person and afforded the opportunity of first choice of books and records, went on sale many hours prior at 7:00 a.m.

To get the best numbers, the die-hards began lining up outside the YMCA building as early as 2:00 a.m. At 7:00 a.m. the ticket sales began and, within 20 minutes, 187 tickets had already been sold at $10 apiece. Keep in mind that the book sale itself wouldn't begin until 4:00 p.m., but with ticket in hand, you could feel secure that your future place in line was guaranteed.

As for me - Did I mention we were on vacation? - my leisurely arrival at 10:30 a.m. garnered me tickets #253 and #254. The rectangular orange tickets were cleverly designed to be worn as wrist bracelets, with an adhesive strip that allowed the numbered ticket to be securely wrapped around the wrist.

I spoke with Paul Fischer, a 25-year volunteer, about the history of the St. Louis YMCA Book Fair. The idea was born 29 years ago when the YMCA was looking for a fundraiser and Willis Pothoff suggested a book sale. Every year since, dedicated volunteers started in February to collect books all over the city of St. Louis. Bins, which are set up at every YMCA building and in local churches, act as receptacles for donations by concerned citizens, with proceeds earmarked to fund the Carondelet Family YMCA, YMCA literacy programs and community outreach programs at Washington University.

Two years ago, the Book Fair broke its fundraising record with proceeds of $116,000. Although totals have not yet been tabulated for 2007, indications are that this year's sale is on par to surpass the previous year.

I asked Paul if he had an interesting story to tell from his 25 year history of volunteer work. Paul thought for a moment before he said, "Well, there was the time someone donated a set of encyclopedias with a gun in it." It seems that a woman had arranged for the YMCA to pick up a set of encyclopedias from her home. Soon afterward, the YMCA received a frantic call from her husband. He had cut the pages out of one of the volumes and used it as a hiding place for his gun. Sure enough, when the volunteers opened the book, they found the gun in its homemade book safe.

There was no gun at the 2007 sale, but violence made an appearance from an unexpected source - Mother Nature. About one hour prior to the opening of the doors, the clouds darkened, the winds whipped themselves into a frenzy and lightning bolts streaked across the sky as a severe thunderstorm descended on the Book Fair's carefully arranged outdoor tents. Signs set up along the wrought iron fence to indicate demarcations ("Numbers 1-25 Stand Here," etc.) were blown away by gusts of wind. Volunteers hastily pulled down the side flaps of tents to protect the outside tented books from driving sheets of rain. By the time we arrived at the sale, about 15 minutes prior to the grand opening, the rain had abated. Puddles, broken tree branches and missing signage were left in the storm's wake. Electricity was in the air, but it wasn't from the lightning.

One unfortunate development ensued from the storm. Originally the entrance to the sale was through the parking lot where three large tents were stocked with books. From there, book sale attendees could proceed to the main building, in which books occupied three floors. However, the organizers feared that the rigged lighting in the outdoor tented area would pose an electrical hazard as the rain had saturated the power cords. They announced that the outdoor area would not open until 5:00 p.m.

This meant that the three floors in the main building were the only areas accessible throughout the first hour of the sale. Darn it; my battle plan had been to head first to the top floor, where the collectible books were housed. Now all the people who would have originally headed first to the tents would instead be in the building with me; I would face massive competition.

There was some confusion about where to stand in the long snaking waiting line, since the numbering signs had blown away. People inquired of others what their numbers were, so as to get an approximate idea of location. As more people joined the line, divisions shuffled and adjusted accordingly.

Of course, there are always the line cheaters. Throughout history, people have lied, cheated and committed murder for the sake of books and civilization has apparently not changed that much. The outwardly personable guy holding ticket #299 was originally standing in the #250 area. This seemed okay when there were 50 people who had not yet shown up to claim their spots, but #299 seemed determined not to retreat when more people joined the line and the boundaries were subsequently adjusted. He surreptitiously lingered at least 50 spots ahead of where his number said he should be.

However, the integrity of the book sale proved to be in good hands with YMCA Executive Director Dan Schulze. The wrist bracelet system averted a potential crisis when Dan called out numbers by increments of tens. People had to lift their wrists and actually show their number before being allowed indoors. St. Peter guarding Heaven's gate could not have been more vigilant than Dan Schulze guarding the heavenly books, as #299 slunk back into the shadows.

According to the volunteers, the wrist bracelet system had been in place for the last 3-4 years and was engineered to prevent fights in the waiting line, which had become a recurring problem. Fights? At a book sale?

The reality is that such an event tends to bring out the best and worst of human nature. Only at a book sale does the drama of life in the mind visibly collide with the drama of life in the flesh. The themes of Homer's Iliad play out poignantly in the theater of book tents, auditoriums and narrow-aisled rooms while shoppers take the field and do battle for the coveted books.

There was the mad rush as the doors opened, the dash down narrow hallways and up and down stairs… boxes colliding against tote bags. My spouse, a novice attendee experiencing his first foray into the battlefield of book sales, told of being sandwiched in an aisle between a slow-moving woman in a walker and a man banging a large box repeatedly against his back. I flew upstairs and ran straight to the room housing the collectible books. The ancient room air conditioner couldn't cope with the massive influx of crazed shoppers and the heat was suffocating.

A man with a zombie-like look in his eyes rushed to the table labeled "Rare, Special and Unusual," reached directly in front of me and snagged two books simultaneously in record time. So much for my pre-conceptions about Midwestern book sales being kinder and gentler.

However, there were many moments marked by Midwestern neighborliness. I had spoken to a woman in line while waiting to enter, and just before our numbers were called, we wished each other "good luck" as we parted ways. I wondered how she was doing as the next few hours melted away in a blur of frenzied shopping exacerbated by the sweltering heat.

Some people were genuinely taking their time examining each book slowly and carefully. A man politely asked if I had seen any Boxcar Children series books. Youthful book sale volunteers chivalrously carried books for older buyers out to their cars.

Surprisingly, I observed very few people using scanners at this sale. YMCA Executive Director Dan Schulze explained to me that only individual books on the tables could be scanned; it was against the rules to hoard a pile of books and then scan each one. This was the biggest difference I noticed from the Eastern sales I had previously attended and, from a non-scanner perspective, it was a policy which made the book sale a much more pleasant experience.

Since we traveled to St. Louis by plane - and having to bring shoes for every possible occasion, I already had 6 pairs of shoes taking up valuable luggage space - I was necessarily constrained in the amount of books I purchased. I tried to limit myself only to those books worth the hassle of hauling long distance via Southwest Airlines.

While there were indeed some nice books on the Rare, Special and Unusual table, some of the prices were shockingly high. A copy of Mein Kampf was available for sale for $2,500 (not surprisingly, it still had not sold by the second-to-last day of the sale); however, most of the other prices on that table ranged from $25 to $100. Other books in the upstairs collectible room ranged in price from $2 to $20, while the bulk of books in the tented areas, the gym and the basement started as low as 25 cents.

I wound up with 17 books at individual prices running the gamut from 25 cents to $25 for a total outlay of $69.75. After bringing the books back to Maryland and doing a little research, I discovered that three of my purchases were total duds. However, the rest stand to make a profit.

My most interesting find was an original 1910 edition of The Science of Getting Rich by W.D. Wattles, the same book in which Rhonda Byme reportedly found The Secret which inspired her phenomenally successful film and book of the same name. Although reprints abound, original 1910 printings of this prosperity classic seem to be quite scarce. It cost me $2.

All in all, the St. Louis YMCA Book Fair was a culmination of expectations, hopes, dreams, books and interesting people that blended together to create a powerful experience I will remember for many days to come. Who could ask for a more Perfect Storm?

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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