In late July every year my favorite community event takes place: the Library Benefit Book Sale. Volunteers fill the local elementary school gym with row upon row of cafeteria tables, and cover them with rows of used books: fiction, non-fiction, nature, cooking, self improvement, foreign languages, how-to, art, photography, history, poetry, biography. The covered walkways outside the school are lined with dozens of boxes of paperbacks. The historical society sells homemade cookies and cakes.
This is where Vermonters come to stock up for the winter. They line up on the sidewalks well before opening time, carrying canvas bags and pushing luggage carts and even small grocery carts.
I usually go to the fiction section first, stand by the table, and proceed sideways in merengue-like steps, perusing the spines of books as I go. It is important to keep ahead of the person behind me, while not pushing too close to the person ahead of me.
Every so often one of us stops, picks up a book and reads a paragraph or two. The polite thing, in that case, is for the person behind the reader to step behind him or her and take the next place in the line. That means, of course, that the person stepping behind the reader misses a number of titles, the exact quantity depending on the reader\’s girth.
Some intense, compulsive types refuse to step behind you as you read, but will stretch their bodies across you and practically push you away from the table, just to make sure they are not missing the book of a lifetime. In my experience, these persons are usually male. When they reach across me, I make a great show of stepping back and waving them to pass in front of me, saying \”please, go ahead.\” But the irony is invariably lost on them. All they care about is finding books.
And finding books is important around here, what with the prospect of winter and sparse village library collections and the scarcity of bookstores. I always find terrific books, many by English women of the last century: Rumer Godden, Barbara Pym, Iris Murdoch, Penelope Lively, Vita Sackville-West–hardback books with front-page dedications in faded, spidery handwriting, smelling of mold and wet wool.
As I sift through the fiction offerings, I note an unusually strong presence by Thomas Kincade, \”the painter of light,\” who, having desecrated the visual arts, is now making a stab at the novel. I also see a lot of books by Jan Karon, who tried to transplant the English-village comedy of manners into a small southern town, and didn\’t quite make it.
By the middle of the morning, my canvas bag is so full I can hardly lug it around. That\’s when I try to find a quiet corner, take stock, and force myself to return some books to the tables. This year I made myself discard several novels by Daphne du Maurier, and regretted it immediately. Maybe they\’ll be back next year.