Church book sale not for faint of heart

by Amy Kingsley

The fit middle-aged man propped against the brick wall in a crowded church courtyard isn’t giving anything away. He says he would prefer to remain anonymous, and he won’t reveal how long he’s been standing here, although he does allow that he left Winston-Salem at 4 a.m.

He rents a retail space, but won’t divulge the name because it is open by appointment only and, he says, he’s got all the customers he needs.

What does he sell, you ask? Given his clandestine nature, the reader would be forgiven for imagining that Mr. Mustache trades in wares of an illicit nature – like Canadian prescriptions, perhaps, or African tree cats. But in truth his quarry is much more pedestrian and buried within some 50,000 volumes locked behind a set of double doors.

Books – used, new, signed, specialty, technical, collectable and trade – attracted this crowd, Mr. Mustache included, a mix of suburban families and maverick dealers, to St. Francis Episcopal Church on a warm spring morning. It’s the church’s 49th annual book sale, a fundraiser that netted more than $25,000 for outreach programs last year alone.

“It’s amazing,” said the Rev. Michael Moulden. “To take old books and transform them into money to change the world.”

The church funnels its profits into its Habitat for Humanity house, youth programs and more. Volunteers from the congregation started sorting books and setting them out almost a week ago.

Planning and organizing the book sale is a yearlong endeavor, led this year by co-chair Cindy Brown. She has volunteered for years and has only witnessed the expulsion of one customer.

“There was one young lady who wanted to bring in an unconventional pet,” Brown said. “It was a parrot who kept nipping and biting at people.”

As for the human customers, they have, in her experience, been pretty well behaved.

“You get some pushing and shoving,” she said, “but primarily everyone just wants to get good books.”

Book dealing, for the uninitiated, can be a pretty cutthroat business. Buyers regularly queue up in the wee hours of the morning, marking their spots with folding chairs and boxes. When the doors open they storm in, wielding internet-equipped cell phones and brains jammed with specialized knowledge of obscure presses and ISBN numbers.

The amateur buyers often ransack certain sections, grabbing boxes of books to be checked and sorted later. The professionals employ a keener eye, one that helps them differentiate between a valuable book and a worthless one. The seasoned buyers don’t horde, and disdain those who do.

I know all this because my boyfriend is the third person in line. He’s dragged me along to a couple of these sales. At a library sale in Durham I snagged a first edition Henry Miller and on other occasions have found nursing textbooks and recovery texts with pretty decent resale value.

“I found a Field Projectiles of the Civil War,” Mark says in an excited whisper, a clutch of books pinned between ribs and elbow.

When the doors opened on this sale, the volunteers in red shirts stood back. But none of the buyers ran this time, their sluggishness a possible byproduct of the free doughnuts provided by church members.

Several swarm the history section, and within minutes stacks of books have disappeared into boxes.

A handful of dealers wander toward the back, to a converted closet teeming with out-of-print and leather-bound books. The rest confine themselves to the main room and browse the rows searching for finds.

Sam from Winston-Salem (also wary of giving me his full name) came looking for Bibles and religious books. He arrived at St. Francis at 4 a.m. His father taught him the book trade, and profits from the family’s cottage industry paid Sam and his siblings’ way through private parochial school. Sam doesn’t use any high-tech devices; when he’s not working his regular job at Quizno’s he places calls to interested parties – a network passed from father to son.

Mark’s already filled two boxes by the time I leave. I interrupt his examination of a yellowed endpaper for just long enough to get a goodbye kiss, and then leave him adrift in a sea of titles.

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