Final chapter of Smith College book sale
Published 2:36 pm, Thursday, April 15, 2010
At 11 p.m. on the eve of the opening of the annual Smith College Book Sale, Mark Kramer, of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., said he arrived at New Canaan's historic Waveny House, cloaked himself in a pink blanket and slept on the doorstep.
After a half century, this year's sale might be the last -- and Kramer, a book dealer who said he has been stocking his collection with finds from the sale for about 15 years, wanted to be first to flip through the selection.
"Years ago, people drove up here and slept in their cars to get the best books," he said, after earning the first entry into the five-day sale. "I didn't want to miss the last one."
But this year, Kramer said he napped and sipped energy drinks in solitude for four hours. At 3 a.m., a few other dealers arrived, but it wasn't until dawn that a more robust group of book aficionados, eager to fill luggage and tattered postal boxes with novels and memoirs, had joined the line.
Early birds took home the most valuable of the approximately 80,000 titles collected for the sale, she said, but she estimates that thousands more turned out for the event.
For the last 50 years, local Smith College alumnae from Norwalk, Stamford, New Canaan, Darien, Wilton, Weston and Redding have collected, sorted and shelved used book donations from their communities. The sale funds a scholarship for local students to attend the competitive all-girls school in Northampton, Mass.
Historically, the sale raises about $30,000 each year, but the annual earnings in the last few years have dropped by about one-third, according to club co-president Heather McHold.
"For a long time, this was one of the top sales around," said local book collector Jeff Brewer. "In the old days, I'd take a couple hundred books. Last year, I walked out with two. I'm just looking for anything I can sell."
Kramer said the Internet is the culprit.
"Years ago, people used to have to travel to get that rare book," Kramer said. "It used to be like treasure hunting. Now, it's right at their fingertips."
The Internet has also reduced one of the big allures of community used-book purges: underpriced rare and valuable reads.
"Before the Internet, your knowledge and [the sale staff's] lack of knowledge is what you prayed on," said John Liberati, a 30-year veteran book dealer from White Plains, N.Y. "Now, it's changed a bit. They know a lot more. The great sweetheart deals aren't as common."
Fewer book buyers means fewer books sold -- and less funding for local scholarships, which is the drive of the sale. Next year, the alumnae club plans to launch a new fundraiser that will garner the kind of support for scholars that the storied book sale raised in the past.
"Now it's over after 50 years," said club member Susan Helms. "It started in a basement back then in Darien and I bet they wouldn't have thought it would end in a beautiful mansion."