Friends Book Sales in the Pandemic Era: October 20-23

October 9, 2021

Like many other community events, the Friends of UW-Madison Libraries’ biannual used book sale was disrupted by the emergence of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020. The fall book sale, and then the spring 2021 book sale followed suit. 

Enter Fall 2021, and the book sale is roaring back. The Friends, who started accepting used book donations again in the summer of 2020, are ready to welcome back patrons with more volunteers, more browsing space, and best of all, more books at Memorial Library on October 20 – 23, 2021

We asked Friends Administrator Libby Theune and Book Sale Committee Chair Michael Chaim to reflect on the last couple of years through a used book sale lens. Here’s what they shared.

The gathering, sorting, and coordinating of the actual materials for the Friends Book Sale is a fairly involved process, requiring people power, in-person logistics, and the like. Can you give us a snapshot of what that process looks like under normal circumstances? 

Libby Theune: Donating one’s books to the Friends of UW-Madison Libraries offers an environmentally friendly way to redistribute unneeded items to others. The Friends are proud to have provided this invaluable, sustainable option to the Madison community for over 20 years. The donations provide inventory for two high-quality used book sales held every spring and fall at Memorial Library on the UW-Madison campus. Funds from the sales directly support the mission of the Friends: to help strengthen, expand, preserve, and give visibility to the world-class resources of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries

Happy shoppers at a previous book sale

The book sales are the culmination of a demanding year-round process managed by Friends Donations Supervisor, James Dast, and a small corps of volunteers working together in the basement of Memorial Library. Quietly and reliably, without payment or recognition, these volunteers 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, but with a vast and deep academic library, only a small percentage is pulled for this purpose. About half of the material donated to the Friends winds up in the sales. The rest is offered to other nonprofit organizations to ensure as many books as possible make their way to new homes. All of this requires people who love books and involves a great deal of lifting, sorting, boxing, and just plain hard, physical work. 

How did that process need to pivot in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, say, during Safer at Home and then as donations became possible once again?  

Libby Theune: We are all familiar with the disruption caused by the pandemic. For the Friends, volunteers were sent home, the sorting stopped, and two years would go by between book sales. Yet, in spite of COVID-19, the free book-disposal service provided by the Friends remained in high demand. People in the Madison area stayed home and cleaned out their bookshelves, downsized, and moved away, so much so that donations to the Friends ticked up, rather than down, during those quiet months of 2020.

Unsorted donations of books, waiting for volunteers to be allowed to get back to work (Spring, 2021)

While the Friends is a volunteer organization, it employs a part time administrator, Libby Theune. While some of Libby’s duties were paused, book donations required her constant attention. She developed a form to organize donation intake under health and safety protocols  and set appointments for receiving materials. She met people at the loading dock of Memorial Library and helped them unload their trunks. She hauled boxes of books to Donations Supervisor Jim Dast, who staged a book sorting operation in his living room. She made stacks and stacks and stacks of unsorted books in the basement of Memorial Library. The aisles narrowed as the rows of boxes grew, waiting for volunteers to resume their activity, the approval for which finally arrived in July 2021.

When the volunteers did come back, they did so with gusto! Those teetering piles of boxes diminished weekly, until one thousand boxes of books had been sorted for the first book sale in two years, scheduled for October 20-23, 2021. Twice as many books — at least 60,000 —  will be available for shopping across two rooms. 

Do you have a story or moment that to you illustrates what it means to coordinate/orchestrate a Friends Book Sale in the middle of an ongoing worldwide pandemic? 

Michael Chaim: There was a moment over the summer that crystallized for me that we should go ahead with the book sale when campus conditions allowed for it. I was browsing in a used bookstore (Frugal Muse, to be precise). I looked up at one point and noticed that the store was packed. Full of people, all masked, all absorbed in book browsing. It hit me: you cannot keep most booklovers away from books. People would come to a book sale, no matter how many books they already had at home. Didn’t I already have an entirely unreasonable number of books at home? Yes, I did. Did I buy a couple from Frugal Muse that day? Absolutely I did. From the summer on, for the whole book sale committee, it became about planning this fall sale to be as safe as possible, and to offer more books than ever before.

The Friends Book Sale Committee, planning in a pandemic (Fall, 2021)

“From the summer on, for the whole book sale committee, it became about planning this fall sale to be as safe as possible, and to offer more books than ever before.” – Michael Chaim

Have there been lessons learned, or unexpected takeaways that you’ll carry forward into planning for future book sales?

Michael Chaim: We applied the same lesson that we’ve all learned over the past 18 months: flexibility is the key. This fall mega-sale is different from past sales in many ways, from the size (60% more space) to the number of books (twice as many as usual) and volunteers (ditto), to many new behind-the-scenes operational methods. Of course, we’ll be enforcing mask rules too, which is different from past sales. The takeaway is that we’ll continue to think more creatively about all aspects of the sale. We’ve talked about exciting ideas for future sales, and we’ll try some of them while still keeping the focus on showcasing the best selection of used books that we can collect. I think that people will like what they see, and I hope that area booklovers will come out and take a look.

Movers bringing in the many, many boxes of sorted books to unpack for the sale. (October, 2019)

The Friends of UW-Madison Libraries Fall Book Sale: October 20-23, 2021

Wednesday, October 20: Preview Sale ($5 entry) 4:00-8:00 PM

•Thursday and Friday, October 21 and 22: Regular Sale 10:30 AM – 7:00 PM (no entry fee)

Saturday, October 23: $5 Bag Sale 9:00 AM – 1:00 PM

From 1:05-2:00 p.m. the remaining books & items are free

Memorial Library, 728 State Street, Madison WI

Special thanks to Michael Chaim and Libby Theune for their work on this feature. Laura Damon-Moore contributed questions and editing.