On May 28, the Buffalo Branch of the American Association of University Women will open its annual used book sale for the 60th time. I have not been a part of this colossal event for all those years, although sometimes it feels that way.
Over the years, I had more than a passing acquaintance with the AAUW and its history in Buffalo, which goes back to 1890. With its mission to advance educational and professional opportunities for women and its moveable feast of interest groups, scholarships, student loans and support for high school girls, it seemed like a good fit for a retirement activity.
But to be honest, what I really wanted to do was work on that book sale. From a one-day sale in vacant downtown storefronts in the 1950s to a five-day event in suburban box stores in the 1990s, the sale has become an institution in the region and a favorite of customers and dealers from New England, the Midwest and Canada. Its nomadic home this year is in Burlington Plaza on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst.
What attracts me and my colleagues, who spend eight months a year collecting, sorting and packing books and then putting in eight- to 10-hour days setting up and working at the sale, is an insatiable interest in books and the chance of discovering that rare and sometimes valuable book.
The consensus is that books are obsolete; that e-readers, iPads and electronic devices that have not yet been invented are destined to replace the printing press.
That may happen. But each year our donations, from private collections, educational institutions, libraries and bookstores, increase – in recent years from an estimated 100,000 to 150,000. And each year, thousands of people turn out to buy those books. Dealers compete for the leftovers.
That success encourages us to anticipate at least a 65th anniversary. Not just because we enjoy the process but because the rewards of all the hard work are so great. Sale proceeds augment our Buffalo Branch funds, resulting in the allocation of close to $100,000 each year in scholarships, fellowships, interest-free college loans and grants and the Tech Savvy and Sister to Sister programs for middle and high school girls.
Virtual books may be the future. I can’t quarrel with that. As Wendy Lesser points out in her delightful book, “Why I Read: the Serious Pleasure of Books,” reading is a highly individual act. “No one will ever do it precisely the way you do.”
The way I do requires the touch and feel of a real book and the comfort of knowing there are many more within arm’s reach.
My husband and I have collected books for more than the 60 years the sale is celebrating. The overflowing bookshelves in most rooms of our house might suggest hoarding. I admit that not being able to part with many is a bit scary. Kindles please many readers, but I don’t think they can duplicate the experience of browsing in a bookstore or library and finding that book you must have.
That happens to me often, and most memorably when I discovered Ian Thompson’s “The English Lakes – A History.” No e-reader could replicate this gorgeous book. A beautiful binding, lavish reproductions of engravings, paintings and photographs, distinctive typography and a narrative that flows from the pen of a masterful writer make this read an aesthetic as well as an intellectual experience. That promise of discovery is what curious readers who come to our sale every year anticipate. Fortunately for them, their success will be a lot less expensive.