The last sale

Yesterday I attended the opening of the last ever Brandeis University Women’s Club Used Book Sale in Chicago, the world’s largest outdoor book sale.

I’ve been attending this sale off and on (mostly on) for the last 30 years. There have been enormous changes in the sale over the years. The sale has changed from a sale of mostly old books to a sale of primarily newish books. Sort of like jumping into a time machine and walking into a Barnes & Nobles of a year or two ago. Most of the older high quality books are now sold at dealer or near-dealer prices so there aren’t nearly as many of the bargains there that there were long ago.

For me the sale has become primarily a social event. Through years of being near the beginning of the line (or, in many years, the very first) we’ve become acquainted with many of the dealers and collectors who are avid enough to stand in line waiting to be among the very first to look at what’s being offered at the sale. With most we’re just friendly acquaintances that we’ve known for many years and can chat with pleasantly about the sale, their businesses, the weather, the state of the world.

A very small number of others have become true friends. We visit each other at times other than the Brandeis Book Sale in our homes and exchange phone calls and Christmas cards. When we meet we share news of pets, families, and careers, sharing joys and sorrows, as friends will do.

This year many of the used book dealers with store fronts were complaining about difficult or failing businesses. They proposed a variety of different explanations for this including high rents, too many dealers, and not enough books. One dealer suggest that younger people are no longer building libraries relying instead on the Internet.

They proposed a number of different strategies for adapting to the changing times: seeking out lower-rent locations, operating more efficiently, making better use of technology, providing a better service. Some were resigned to abandoning a career in which they’d spent perhaps thirty years, still too young and in all probability too poor to retire but too old to make looking for a new job a pleasant prospect.

I think that the used book business is yet another business model that is failing, at least for small scale operators with the skillsets and approaches they’ve used for many years.

The official reason that the people running the Book Sale gave for ending it was that the volunteers were getting too old for the hard work involved and a new group of volunteers hadn’t taken up the banner. That may be true but I think that the real answer is that the Brandeis Book Sale is another failing business model, succombing to the pressures of higher costs, technology, and changing attitudes.

But as Stephen Vincent Benet wrote, “This is the last…this is the last”.

The end of an era.

6 comments… add one
  • It’s nice the way a passion for books and reading can bring people together, and form lasting friendships.

    It sounds like a wonderful market. Pity it’s ending.

  • Ann Julien

    The Nursery Foundation sale in St. Louis is still a really great sale—smaller than it used to be, but still good. Also, at the Greentree Festival, KHS Parents Band Boosters (AIM) holds a really fun sale—everything, from dreck on up. (however, if the organizer is savvy, they withhold the best/rarest, and sell them on e-bay). I’ve found fantastic cookbooks there.

    Doug and I spent several hours at the Nursery Foundation sale a few weeks back, and my arms are now hanging down a good 2 inches lower, or seems like. My best find was “Of Paradise and Power;America and Europe” in the New World Order by Robert Kagan. A little bitty hardback in perfect condition. I wish i had purchased the folio version of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” there for you—i looked at it, and it really wasn’t too expensive—they had their rare books in a separate case. Doug got lots of goodies: “Why Buildings Fall Down”; “King Tut, and other Mysteries, the Inside Story”…something like that. Come down next year, we’ll all go? Love, Ann

  • This does not bode well for my son’s long term future. His wish has been to be reincarnated as a bookstore cat.

  • triticale, have you ever read Paul Gallico’s book, The Abandoned?

  • Beth

    David— your entry on the Brandeis book sale just came up on my search (I was looking for the hours of the sale today). There was also an article that there may be a reprieve— another group is proposing to sponsor the sale. Little City, I believe. Of course, I can’t find the link now, but it was in Pioneer Press.

    Still, it is the end of an era. Interesting how it has changed over the years.

    May all book lovers find what they seek.

  • Beth, I consider what’s been proposed as less a reprieve for the sale than another organization using the date and location for its own sale. Little City has sponsored its own book sale and the quantity, variety, and quality of the books offered have been significantly poorer than Brandeis.

Leave a Comment