Fuse News: The Lenox Library’s Grand Book Sale — Bargains in the Berkshires

By Helen Epstein.

The Lenox Library Grand Book Sale: 18,000 books in 42 categories (also CDs and DVDs). At the Lenox Library, Lenox, MA, August 23–25. “FIRST LOOK” on Friday, 11 a.m.–2 p.m., $5 Contribution, 2–6 p.m,. free; free Saturday: 10 a.m–5 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m.–5 p.m.


The Lenox Library.

According to www.booksalefinder.com, there are at least 6000 used book sales held every year in the U.S. The Lenox Library of Berkshire County, Massachusetts (a Greek Revival building where Edith Wharton once volunteered) opened in 1874 and its book sale — drawing on the discards of the area’s writers, teachers, performers, psychotherapists, and culture-obsessed summer-residences — is considered one of the best on the East Coast. Dealers come from as far away as Virginia, New York, and Maine and line up as early as 4 a.m. on opening day.

Ilse Browner has been running the sale since she moved to the Berkshires 20 years ago, when she was 68. On her first visit to the fall “Apple Squeeze” in Lenox, she saw a table piled with unsorted books. “Why don’t you separate them into children and adult?” she suggested. “They suggested I take over.”

Browner was born to the Hochhauser family in Vienna in 1925 and cannot remember a time when she didn’t love books:

“I read and reread the Grimm Brothers’ and Hauff’s Marchen, and a series called Bibi by Karin Michaelis. I adored a book by Bengt Berg, the famous Swedish naturalist who hunted with his camera instead of a gun. It was about the Indian Rhinoceros and how he got photographs of those shy, reclusive animals. It was in his book I first read the phrase ‘einsam mit ein Einhorn wandern‘(wandering lonely as a unicorn).”

“I sneaked books from my parent’s library including Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel and other novels which I shouldn’t have read — and the Encyclopedia with pictures I shouldn’t have seen. I used to sit on the windowsill of my room and read in the fading light long after Mademoiselle thought I’d gone to sleep. We left everything behind in 1938. Fled without exit visas in the early morning of March 12, pretending we were going on a ski trip. I was told I could bring one book. I chose Gustav Schalk’s extraordinarily illustrated book called Walhalla that includes the Niebelungen saga. I searched for the book for years in the U.S. to no avail. A few years ago, on the internet, I was finally able to order it from a dealer in Germany.”

Ilse Hochhauser had attended an all-girls Viennese gymnasium so when she arrived in New York she was academically far ahead of her American peers. She was accelerated at Julia Richman High School in Manhattan, graduated from Vassar College at 19, and got a master’s in chemistry from Cornell just before her 21st birthday. Then she married Irwin Browner, worked in a chemistry laboratory, and took 14 years off to have and raise three children in Westchester County, New York, though she continued to either work part-time or volunteer.

In 1959, she and a group of Vassar alumnae began selling maple syrup to benefit the Vassar Scholarship Fund, but when they heard that the D.C. chapter was making more money with used books they made the switch. Browner ran the Westchester Vassar Book Sale for three decades, until the Browners “retired” to the Berkshires in 1993. The following August, with Browner taking the helm, the Lenox Book Fair raised $500. The following year, she rented a tent and made $1,000. By 2010, the book sale netted nearly $32,000, money crucial to the library’s operating expenses in a time of cutbacks.

The internet has transformed her work. Enterprising readers now sell their books online; book dealers shop with smart phones in hand. “It’s good for customers but bad for sellers,” she says. “We’re suffering from the price war that Amazon started. It depressed prices and dealers can no longer afford to own or operate stores. The old book dealers used to talk books. The new ones talk price.”

About 100 dealers (some of whom have had fist-fights over their finds and need to be monitored for hogging) are expected at the Lenox library this coming Friday morning They will be assigned a number to take first dibs at the 18,000 books for sale in 42 categories. Browner, her co-Chair Maureen Hammel, and their band of 50 or so volunteers have pre-sorted the volumes throughout the year, relegating about 10,000 to the trash.

Book buyers awaiting their chance to peruse the treasures at the 2010 Lenox Library book sale.

Book buyers awaiting their chance to peruse the treasures at the 2010 Lenox Library book sale.

In addition to tossing away moldy, stained, and torn books, they reject encyclopedias, dictionaries, old textbooks, and other reference works that the internet has rendered obsolete, selling them to a dealer along with the leftover books after the sale. Even a magisterial OED with magnifying glass and in perfect condition commands no more than $50 these days. She has, over the years, kept statistics about what sells and what does not and is unsentimental about her findings. The monetary value of books has plummeted.

“The hardcovers, no matter how beautiful the paper or covers, are hard to sell,” she says. “People who travel find them too heavy and for people who are sick hardcovers not as comfortable to hold as trade paperbacks. The mystery section sells out immediately. Cookbooks always do well — people read them, donate them, and buy more. Children and Young Adult books always sell well. So do categories like Military History — lately the World Wars, Celebrity (particularly the Royals, Hollywood, Rock Musicians), Art and Hobby. Since the recession “How-To” books have had a resurgence, as in “How to Build Your Own Porch.” Spiritual self-help books, especially those that have sold in the millions, don’t do well at the Lenox Book Sale. Neither do unknown poets and the categories of Religion, Politics, Economics, Law, or Psychology. Graphic novels sell out immediately, as does Erotica.” Alert to the concerns of parents, Ilse hides the latter in the Home and Family section.

Browner’s pricing is calculated with an eye towards dealers as well as lay readers. A small bottle of maple syrup now costs more than most of the books on sale. Except for special volumes and collections, most sell for under $3; mass paperbacks for 50 cents. Still, every year, volunteers intercept some people stealing books. On Tuesday, Aug. 20, movers will pick up the 850 cartons of this year’s books from an old mill where volunteers have been sorting, pricing, and packing all year, and deliver them to the Lenox Library tent. On Friday August 23rd, Browner will be
greeting booksellers and booklovers at dawn and all week-end.

Helen Epstein is the author of six books including the Central European family history Where She Came From and the co-publisher of Plunkett Lake Press eBooks of Life Writing.

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