The Perfect Storm

by Michele Behan

#104, 24 September 2007

The St. Louis YMCA Book Fair

Printer Friendly Article

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.

>>>>>Click here for page two>>>>

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

| Forum | Store | Publications | BookLinks | BookSearch | BookTopics | Archives | Advertise | AboutUs | ContactUs | Search Site | Site Map | Google Site Map

Store - Specials | BookHunt | BookShelf | Gold Edition & BookThink's Quarterly Market Report | DomainsForSale | BookThinker newsletter - free

Copyright 2003-2011 by BookThink LLC


Comment Comment Comment Comment Comment Comment Comment Comment Comment