Glorious sunshine reflecting off two huge gold and white striped tents set up in front of the Westport Friends Meeting (Quaker) House on Main Road acted as a homing beacon for hundreds of book lovers from all over the region. The highly anticipated 48th Annual Used Book Fair opened for a two week run at precisely 11:00 AM on Saturday, July 11.
By 10:45, book lovers of every age and description surrounded the tents. A few tantalizing feet away and cordoned off by a yellow rope lay the objects of their desires - large folding tables jam packed with paperbacks and hardcover books of every category.
Enthusiasts behind the ropes craned their necks to focus on titles of books an arm’s reach away to see if they could make out books they might pounce on at the opening.
At the two minute warning, several mothers were seen moving their small children back a pace or two, not wanting to watch them get swept into the sea of books when the crowd surged in. At the blast of a shrill whistle, the yellow ropes surrounding the tents were dropped and a cheering throng descended upon the tables like locusts.
The book sale is one of the biggest on the south coast. “We took in over 35,000 books,” Westport Meeting Treasurer Deana Chase said. “We begin sorting in September and continue through the year. Books are sorted, catalogued, priced individually and stored in cartons. Books are culled if they’re moldy or in poor condition,” Ms. Chase said. The 190-year-old Meeting House was filled with children’s books and the Macomber Community House with overflow from the two tents outside.
A staggering 30,000 books were up for grabs at bargain basement prices. Many hardcover books were priced a tenth of retail cost. Better books were priced at bargain rates, some paperbacks were six for a dollar. Categories ranged from novels and literature, to history, romance, mystery, humor, science fiction, philosophy, reference, cookbooks, large format books, and the newest category, self-help.
Lousy economy or not, people don’t want to pass up good deals. Jolly volunteers hand out paper bags and cartons. Patrons fill them up with gusto. Some fetch an armload and head for home. Many find a place to sit outside the tent and sort through the booty for keepers then return unwanted books back to the table.
“It all started out in 1962 when we needed to raise money to fix a leaky roof at the parsonage across the street,” Dr. Stuart Kirkaldy said. He should know. He was there then and has been at just about every one since. “Our student pastor John Ruth, who’s quite a bibliophile, suggested we organize a book sale to help pay the roofing bill. We raised $410, and fixed the roof.”
“John Ruth came up from his parsonage in King of Prussia, PA, to help us price the books. One day, in a calm voice and with perfectly neutral expression, he handed me a book and said, ‘You may want to keep this one. It’s a first edition of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.’ “
If there were any doubts whether the book sale would become an annual event, they were dismissed that day. A reputable book dealer paid $425 dollars for the book.
Over the next thirteen years, the book sale was held on the second Saturday in July. No tent, rain or shine. The volume of books donated and the crowds attending grew exponentially. By the fourteenth year 1974, the committee rented tents and extended the sale. Today’s sale featured eighty tables packed with books, a long way from the dozen or so tables for the first events.
“The money we take in helps to maintain the Meeting House and grounds and for what we call “Benevolences,” contributions to local or Quaker causes we identify,” Dr. Kirkaldy said. Although he lives in Middlebury, VT, the venerable retired Westport physician is a fixture at every year’s fair.
“No one likes to throw away books,” a Dartmouth resident and Westport Meeting member for twenty years Gretchen Baker-Smith said, “ so they all bring them here.”
And on the second Saturday of every year grateful book lovers from miles around rejoice at this “Friendly” tradition.
PHOTOS by Paul Tamburello