On a wet Saturday a couple of weeks ago, my 7-year-old daughter reminded me that our local library was having its book sale. So she, her younger brother, and I piled in the car and headed over. After about 20 minutes, the kids settled themselves in a corner with a stack of books more than a foot high. I kept browsing. By the time we were ready to settle up, we had picked out 14 books, which set us back a whopping $9.
None of what we bought was rare: some Magic Treehouse adventures , a few Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries, H.A. Rey’s The Stars: A New Way to See Them. My daughter turned up a relic from the 1960s: a book on Indian crafts and how to make them, which turned out to be perfect, 40 years later, for her 2nd-grade class’s study of Native Americans. The serendipitous joy of finding it was worth every modest penny. The point is that there was readers’ gold to be found on all those tables of random paperbacks and obscure hardcovers.
The prize of the day was a 2,000-page Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary (unabridged) from the 1950s, which I found for a buck on the “Last Chance” table. The words “Last Chance” brought out the side of me that wants to adopt every dog and cat at the animal shelter every time I visit. Luckily for my household, a massive dictionary is a lot easier to care for than a mastiff or a mongrel. The Webster’s has been living on our coffee table, delighting the children and their elders with its heft and erudition. And I got it for a buck. A buck! Time was you’d have shelled out a lot more than that for such a thing. Sure, everybody looks everything up online now, but there’s still a lot of joy to be had from browsing a 10-inch-thick guide to the weird wonders of English. So many words one never knew and will never have occasion to use. And those thumbnail sketches have a certain whimsy to them.
Who knows what gems and rarities we will find at the library sales of the next few years? My friend Jim and I traded a few thoughts about this via Twitter. We agreed that it could be a golden age, as the bound book loses some of its luster and libraries shuffle old tomes out to make room for…whatever the libraries of the future consider essential. There will be some good stuff to be snapped up. “For a while, there will be a boom, as everyone offloads their old books,” Jim said. “But eventually, will there be cardboard boxes full of cracked and yellowed old Kindles and iPads, for a buck each?” And after that? “A hellish Mad Max existence where gangs of savages burn old copies of Harry Potter to run their cars in the outback,” Jim said.
Last chance! Get ’em while they last!