I am a big fan of the Seattle Public Library; they have an incredible selection of books, e-books, CDs, DVDs, and other media, plus some great free services, ranging from personalized book recommendations to 24/7 online chat with a librarian, all of which I love to talk about to — at — anyone who will listen. But my favorite way of showing the library some love is at their semi-annual Friends of the Library book sales, where up to 250,000 items are up for grabs for $2 or less. I try to make it to every sale (because my bookshelves aren’t quite crammed enough), but I usually get dragged away around the four-hour mark by my long-suffering boyfriend. Then I thought, Maybe I should volunteer at the sale. I could be closer to the books! ALL DAY!
What do you picture when I say “book sale”? Are you imagining a windowless basement with a plate of cookies and six boxes of tattered old smelly copies of The Hobbit? Okay, instead think of a Costco stripped down to the bare cement floor, or a giant empty airplane hangar (which is actually what it is). Then imagine dozens of card tables set up end to end, forming long, narrow aisles that stretch from one side of the building to the other. Then fill in the tables, plus the space under all those tables, with cardboard flats packed full of books standing spine-up, and add a few storage rooms with jam-packed built-in shelves, and that’s what the book sale looks like.
Now, I’ve volunteered at book sales before, so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. I decided to spice things up by picking the Half-Price Sunday shift, when wild-eyed bargain hunters get a little crazy, and asking for a job at the cashier’s desk, rather than floating around straightening books or something. I was assigned to be a counter in “The Brig,” aka the DVD/CD/VHS room. When you check out, first you go to a counter, who adds up all the different items and their prices; then you go to a cashier, where you actually pay. I assume this speeds up the flow, but maybe it just gives all those old lady volunteers stuff to do.
On Half-Price Sunday, all the CDs and DVDs were fifty cents, and the VHS was 4/$1 — but not twenty-five cents each. See, the actual goal was to get rid of all the VHS, so if people picked out three tapes, they could either get one more for the same price ($1) or just take the three for $1. This blew people’s minds. Some people were genuinely distressed! They had picked out 14 (14!) tapes or whatever, and they were equally torn between picking out two additional tapes or effectively paying the less-good price of 2/$1 on the stragglers. They would hesitate, wincing and looking back and forth from their pile to the VHS tables, literally wringing their hands in indecision. It didn’t help that the other volunteer was describing the price structure as “1, 2, 3, or 4 for $1.”
As an office drone, I had forgotten how many people you see during a day of retail — hundreds, easily. I thought I might see someone I knew, but I didn’t, really. I’m pretty sure I recognized a former Borders employee, stocking up on DVDs, but it seemed way too sad to strike up that conversation. Some of my favorite customers:
• Crazy-cat-lady walking cliché with frizzy, grizzled hair and amazing pastel-pink horse sweatshirt.
• Elderly ESL Asian man who asked me which was better, Terminator 2 or Men in Black (part of a VHS 4/$1 negotiation). Not up for discussion: his Nickelodeon cartoon video.
• Doughy, pinky-signet-ring-wearing Cool Dad who did a terrible, unsolicited Wallace & Gromit impression while purchasing a Wallace & Gromit VHS.
• Overly friendly SakuraCon “library manager” who bought the entire stock of anime DVDs and tried to convince a middle-aged mom volunteer to do cosplay.
As a customer, I sometimes get annoyed when cashiers comment on my purchases, but at the book sale, I remembered that it’s really just the only thing you have in common with this stranger for the few minutes of your time together. So I did it, too. If they only had one item, I teased them about not finding anything more; if they had a teetering stack that went a foot higher than the top of their bag, I joked about that. When I saw a CD or DVD I owned, I would make an approving comment. If a woman had spectacularly ugly jewelry on, I complimented it and made her smile.
If this were a rom-com movie, or a chick-lit book, here’s where the shy-and-frumpy-but-beautiful heroine would meet Mr. Right: she’d be volunteering on a weekend because she never gets asked on dates, and he’d be the witty-and-cultured-yet-impoverished guy buying some obscure literary tome by her favorite author, and they’d strike up some flirty banter and feel a spark when their fingers brushed together on the book. In reality, though, the volunteers are mostly middle-aged and mostly women, and the customers are exactly the unglamorous penny-pinchers you’d imagine flocking to a fifty-cent library sale.
It wasn’t a bad gig, but there were tedious stretches, and my exile in the A/V brig meant I was cut off from all the book excitement going on in the main hangar. I did get a coupon for a free coffee from the cart, and a ticket good for two free books. Traffic thinned out in the final hour, and our last customer bought one CD and left a few minutes before the sale officially ended. I dropped off my badge in the empty volunteer office, clutching my books to my chest to shield them from the rain, and decided I was going to buy a Kindle.
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