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December 2, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 38°F

Life & Culture

Old books receive new life at community book sale

Cardboard boxes and brown paper bags line the entrance of the warehouse for customers to use at their disposal as they wander through aisles upon aisles of shelves filled to the brim with old books, board games, maps, vinyls and more at the Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library Fall Book Sale held every weekend from Oct. 8 to 25.

The Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library (the Friends) is a local nonprofit organization dedicated to facilitating the connection between the Ithaca community and the library by supporting cultural and educational programs. A large part of the fundraising effort comes from the Friends’ biyearly book sale, which takes place in May and October. The sale first began in 1947, with the proceeds from the first sale going toward purchasing a phonograph, an early form of the record player, and music records for the Tompkins County Public Library. Ever since then, much of the sale’s proceeds go toward grants for local organizations like the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County, Rural Youth Services and Tompkins Learning Partners.

From left, Ithaca resident Denis Donahue and event coordinator Tately Casler browse through shelves at the book sale. The book sale takes place biyearly. Xinyi Qin/The Ithacan

Preparations for the book sale begin around five months prior, where the Friends accept donations of books, CDs, DVDs, maps, vinyls and more. Kathy Weinberg, assistant coordinator of the Book Sale, helps oversee this process — sorting books on general science, true crime and miscellaneous items. Weinberg said the goal is to sell 80% of all inventory during the sale. Items that are not sold by the end of each sale are donated to ThriftBooks, a website dedicated to selling used books.

“The really fun part is volunteering during the year, during intake,” Weinberg said. “There’s something that’s very magical and compelling about sorting the books that we get. So you take the book and try to figure out what section it goes in … and that’s how we start all our volunteers. And pretty much everyone falls in love with rough sorting, which is what we’re doing.”

Weinberg said that anywhere from 100 to 200 local volunteers help prepare for each book sale in some capacity — from intake and sorting to cleaning and selling. Donations of old books from members of the community are also a key part of the sale. Weinberg said she has seen cases where people who buy books from the sale re-donate the books at intake for the next sale. The process of donating and purchasing books is cyclical in nature. 

From left, Sarah Hatcher and Kathy Weinberg, assistant coordinators of the Book Sale, volunteered to help organize books and assist shoppers during the sale. Elijah Cedeño/The Ithacan

“If you’ve ever taken a book that you really liked and tried to throw it away at your house, you cannot do it,” Weinberg said. “It’s the hardest thing in the world. … And so that’s a huge part of what we do: we take. We take books that people are happy to give away and we turn them into a resource that people want to buy and we turn the money from that into help for all these causes related to literacy in Tompkins County.”

It was by word of mouth that Ithaca College senior Rebecca Rivera initially heard about the book sale during her first year on campus. Out of curiosity, Rivera took the Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit bus to the sale and said she has been going ever since.

“I love book sales like this,” Rivera said. “I love to read, but I don’t always have the money to get brand new copies of books from chain bookstores or even from local bookstores. Unfortunately, books can be expensive, but book sales like this make reading and owning books more affordable and accessible for me and the rest of the community.”

All materials are divided into categories between adult and children, each with corresponding prices. As the sale goes on, prices are gradually reduced, with the most expensive items running for $4.50 a piece on the first day of the sale and the cheapest at only 10 cents on Dime Day, where all items on the last Monday of the sale are sold for only 10 cents. 

Aside from the relatively low-cost items available for purchase at the book sale, special sale days targeted at seniors and students offer books and resources at lower costs from 25 cents to $1.50. Bag Day also encourages guests to fill up a medium-sized bag with as many books as they can — all for a single dollar.

While the sale is widely enjoyed by local community members, Weinberg said she has also seen non-local customers who plan trips to Ithaca to correlate with the book sale so they can shop. Some people, Weinberg said, are so devoted to the sale that they even ship books from all over the United States specifically for intake. 

“We have graduates from [the college] and Cornell [University] who live all over the … United States who plan trips back to Ithaca to coincide with the book sale so they can come shop,” Weinberg said. 

First-year Ithaca College student Prasavya Jung Karki flips through a novel at the sale. Proceeds from the sale go toward supporting educational programs in Ithaca. Xinyi Qin/The Ithacan

Binghamton University junior Keaton Hemminger traveled all the way from Binghamton to attend the sale after hearing about the event from her friend’s brother who attends Cornell University. Hemminger said this was the largest book sale she had attended and was impressed by how cheap everything was — finding some of her favorite books like “The Scarlet Letter” and “Wuthering Heights” for less than a dollar each.

“I think it’s incredibly important to have access to books at such cheap, affordable prices,” Hemminger said.

Aside from the book sale in Ithaca, there are other similar book sales run by nonprofits across the country by local Friends of the Library volunteer groups. Book Sale Finder keeps track of national book sales with local listings from state to state.

There is a magic and a mystery to wandering the aisles of old books, games and resources, which Rivera said she encourages everyone to take a trip to the sale to see for themselves.

“If you go, be sure to bring cards or some kind of game to play while you wait,” Rivera said. “Plus, the Friends of the Library Book Sale sells way more than just books. Games, music, DVDs — they’ve got a lot of stuff. It’s always a lot of fun, and you never know what you’ll find.”