The Libraries’ Million Dollar Man

August 27, 2019

In this fast-paced world of immediate gratification, the virtues of patience and persistence are often overlooked. Yet deep in the basement of the UW-Madison Libraries toils an old-world academic who embodies all the qualities of long-term perseverance and consistency. James Dast has been volunteering his time for more than two decades in Memorial Library, sorting books that are donated to the Friends of UW-Madison Libraries, setting aside the most interesting ones to be sold for pennies on the dollar during their biannual used book sales. Under Jim’s leadership, the book sale has become one of the largest in Wisconsin and attracts shoppers and book dealers from around the Midwest. The next sale is scheduled for October 16-19, 2019 and Jim is on track to reach an astonishing achievement: he expects to surpass one million dollars in total revenue. At $1 a book or sometimes $5 a bag, Jim Dast has diligently, even doggedly, plugged the piggy bank, slowly generating a tremendous sum of money.

The book sales are the culmination of a demanding year-round process in which Jim volunteers 10 to 15 hours every week along with a handful of faithful assistants. Reliably and without payment or recognition, they receive, sort, evaluate and organize the more than 80,000 donated books that pour into the basement of Memorial library annually. The library bibliographers get first crack at all donations to fill holes in the campus collections. Items not selected are then boxed for the sales or offered to public library used book sales, the Rotary Club, Better World Books, and other nonprofit organizations to ensure as many books as possible are re-homed.

Through the efforts of Jim Dast and his team of book sale volunteers, the Friends of UW-Madison Libraries can count on a consistent stream of income to help give visibility to the world-class resources of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries. Yet perhaps the most unique and heartily used benefit that is provided by the Friends is a free book-disposal service. Every day someone in the Madison area is downsizing, retiring, or moving and they are forced to part with portions of their cherished literary collection. Donating one’s books to the Friends offers an environmentally friendly way to unload unwanted items and gives the donor a sense of good will. No matter where the book ends up, they know their donation will benefit campus libraries and they are pleased their book may find a new home on someone’s bookshelves. The Friends are proud to have provided this invaluable, sustainable solution to the well-read citizens of Madison for over 20 years, largely due to the efforts of Jim Dast.

Though he has a gruff exterior, Jim is a quiet man who leads by example with a deep and tangible appreciation for the written word. He is in the process of teaching his successors the heart and soul of the book sale business – the multifaceted philosophies and techniques behind choosing the best books for the sale. It involves a complex combination of wisdom, knowledge, resources, and gut instinct which is not an easy thing to communicate. Yet when he called for an apprentice, he received not just one offer, but six people who were eager to learn what he considers when he handles a donated book. They come in each week and Jim guides them with their selections, preparing for his most difficult job of all – letting go. He plans to step down from leading the book sales when he reaches a million dollars in total sales. His ability to inspire and lead will be reflected in what he leaves behind: the tradition of a quality book sale where literary treasures can be rediscovered. Jim Dast’s work provided the Friends with reliable income and the Madison community a place to discard (and retrieve!) their beloved reading material. In a city that values education, there can be no higher cause.

NOTE:  The Friends of UW-Madison Libraries are delighted that Jim Dast was recently honored with the September 2019 Jefferson Award.  Congratulations and thank you, Jim!

FALL 2019 Friends of UW-Madison Libraries Book Sale

Wednesday, October 16 — Saturday, October 19

Memorial Library, Room 116

  • Wednesday, October 16
    Preview Sale:  4:00-8:00 p.m. ($5 entry)
  • Thursday and Friday, October 17-18
    Regular Sale: 10:30 a.m.-7:00 p.m. (no entry fee)
  • Saturday, October 19
    Bag Sale: 9:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. ($5 per bag)
    Bring your own grocery bag or purchase one for $1
    From 1:05-2:00 p.m. the remaining books & items are free