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Volunteers are heart and soul of library’s massive book sale

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KENT—There is an African proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child. It’s not a child, but the proverb could as easily be applied to the Kent Memorial Library, a cultural hub for the community that relies on the unstinting assistance of a dedicated cadre of volunteers.

The plaza in front of the Kent Memorial Library is thronged throughout the summer—weather permitting—as shoppers look for bargains on books. Photo by Kathryn Boughton

“We’re number one in Connecticut for the number of volunteer hours given,” said library Director Sarah Marshall, noting that just in May, while setting up for this year’s summer-long book sale, volunteers logged 389 hours. On average, during months when the annual sale is underway, volunteers give 350 hours a month.

And that’s just for the book sale. Other volunteers are racking up hours in other ways. “We were just under 600 hours for volunteer hours in May, if you include all that the board members do.”

The role of volunteers was a sentiment endorsed by Eric and Elise Cieplik, long-time workers. “Volunteers are how we put on the book sale each weekend from Memorial Day until late October,” they said. “Volunteers sort, clean and make sure the books are ready for sale. It’s the volunteers and it’s their passion for the library and the place it holds in the community.”

“The book sale is successful because of four factors: donors, volunteers, customers and, our silent partner, the weatherman, who, alas, does not take bribes,” added long-time book sale devotee Jon LaFleur whimsically. 

Even with a history of dedicated volunteers that have kept the sale afloat for five decades, their numbers must continually be refreshed with new recruits. LaFleur said there are specific areas that need help immediately. “Substitute cashiers on the Sunday 10-1:30 shift are needed immediately for June 16 and 23,” he said.

Throughout the year books are donated, sorted, cleaned in preparation for the summer-long book sale that is the Kent Memorial Library’s biggest fundraiser. Photo contributed

Bethany Keck said she loves volunteering at the book sale, having dipped her toe into book sale waters just after Covid. “I started out by volunteering to complete some puzzles for them—we only sell complete puzzles that have been checked by volunteers—because I love doing puzzles.”

The experience lured her deeper and she took charge of puzzles, and then the children’s book section.  “We volunteer all of ‘off season’ on our own time to get ready for the five months we are open so that things are priced and nicely organized, and then it’s like a family reunion when we start setting up again.

“There are a couple of things I really love about volunteering,” she continued. “The first is that it’s amazing to watch what comes in, especially in the children’s category.  The second is that it’s amazing to see what sells, especially now that I have been in this a few years. Two years ago, board books didn’t sell well and last year they flew off the table.  Last year, young adult books didn’t sell; this year they are going pretty fast already.  It’s just so interesting to me!  I love it, I really do.”

LaFleur said that even with 20,000 to 30,000 books passing through the sale each year, he said some areas are not as well-stocked as others. “We need more books in some categories,” he added. “Business/investments and health advice books must be current, and we need books about popular musicians. The three B’s [Bach, Beethoven and Brahms] do not sell, but Bon Jovi and the Beatles do.”

The book sale has been around for about a half century, according to Marshall, and is one of the few remaining of its magnitude. “Most local libraries have shut down their sales because they take incredible time and space. Most libraries used to have them and now have closed them, or they have shrunken over time,” she said. 

Books are received all year round and are sorted and assessed by a crew of workers. “We get books from all over, at least from a 50- to 100-mile radius” she said. “We even have people who mail them to us. We get 10 to 15 banker’s boxes full of books a week—at least. It’s an insane amount of books. We rely a lot on an endless pipeline.”

The volunteers sort and select the books, assigning them to different categories. “It takes a lot of time, and each team has its own section that they sort. They know what they sell,” she said. Some of the books that come in have additional value, and these are sorted out and sold online or in the library. Very rarely, something of real value is missed by the sorters and is sold for a song.

“We had a first edition of Catcher in the Rye that was marked $1,” she remembered. “We sold it for $1, but, because we were not paying for it, we were not losing money. What we lost is opportunity.”

Twelve Kent School students did the heavy lifting during their community service day, helping library volunteers to set up for this summer’s book sale. Photo contributed

“People are coming to find deals, not rare books,” she said. “At the very beginning of the season, it’s the dealers who show up and they check to see what they can get. On opening day, we had 20 dealers lined up for an hour before we opened. We keep beautiful leather-bound sets or things of local interest like books by Kissinger or Eric Sloane in the library, but that is maybe 25 books a year.”

This well-oiled machine will hit a snag next year when the library is expanded and renovated. There will be no physical book sale next year with the familiar blue-tarped tables in the plaza. “We hope to extend our online sales and make some money that way,” Marshall said of the hiatus, but the lack of the sale with be noticeable in the summer hustle and bustle of Kent’s center. “It’s a real tourist attraction,” said Marshall.

Adjustments will have to be made in procedure even after the addition is completed. Since 2008, the library has had the luxury of storing books in the old firehouse adjacent to the library. The renovation will connect the two buildings and the firehouse will become the section where the book stacks are placed. Upstairs will be a large assembly room. 

“The book sale is important to our bottom line, but it is not our mission,” said Marshall. “The firehouse will have a fairly small intake area where we can triage the donations, but we need to figure out where we will store them. But we didn’t have the firehouse before ’07 and the book sale has been around for 50 years—it’s not an insurmountable problem.”

The book sale is the largest fundraiser conducted by the library. “It’s a big, complicated effort and we certainly couldn’t do it without the volunteers, but people love it. People love to sit outside and chat. There are lots of happy faces out there,” said Marshall.

Kathryn Boughton
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