Closing the book: Smith College sale turns 50 and bows out
By Brittany Lyte
Once a year, dozens of book dealers across the nation arrive at New Canaan’s historic Waveny House before midnight for the annual Smith College Used Book Sale, according to Susan Helms, one of many local women in the Smith Alumnae Club who organize the sale. Some dealers spend the night in the parking lot, she said.
At 9:30 a.m. the mansion doors open and early birds who front a $10 donation enter the brick manor to search for literary treasures like a first-edition copy of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” complete with its dust jacket.
According to New Canaanite Eddy Sherwood, the local Smith Alumnae Club’s self-taught rare books guru, the Salinger novel sold for $700 — and that was about 15 years ago.
“Now it would sell for thousands,” she said.
During the last 50 years Smith College alumnae have organized the sale, which funds a scholarship for local students to attend the competitive all-girls school in Northampton, Mass., book aficionados have walked out with rare reads like a copy of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” complete with an 18-line handwritten inscription by its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe.
This year’s five-day sale, which begins today (Thursday), will include about 80,000 books including a first-edition copy of Charles Webb’s “The Graduate” and a coffee table book autographed by the King of Jordan, Sherwood said.
This year’s sale is also the last. And the club, which has 650 members from Norwalk, Stamford, New Canaan, Darien, Wilton, Weston and Redding, plans to go out with a bang, Helms said.
“The books that might have, at one point, filled up the dump, we dust them off and put them on shelves,” Helms said.
The book sale was born in Marie Moore’s Darien garage in 1961. Moore, now 97, graduated from Smith College in 1932 and, 29 years later, began collecting and selling books to raise funds for local scholarships.
“Smith was really a defining moment in her life,” said Barbara Cox, Moore’s daughter and a Smith graduate. “She was president of the little local Smith Club and they needed a fundraiser. She got a group of women together and they collected books in her garage and I think they had a storefront donated to them in Darien for the sale and they just did the best they could. It created this esprit among the alumnae in the area who wanted to do something for the college and love books — because Smithies love books. It’s had this incredible history of volunteer leadership.”
An affection for good reads and for a common college campus in Western Massachusetts has garnered a fluid cast of Fairfield County alumnae who have kept the sale in business for a half century.
Raising more than $1 million since its first book sale, the local Smith Club is the second most successful chapter of the college’s alumnae clubs, Cox said.
Half of the funds filter back to the school, and the rest support an endowed scholarship fund for local young women to attend Smith College, according to co-president Heather McHold.
“We’ve had letters from girls saying, ’My mother lost her job, I thought I was going to have to drop out of school, but the money you raised from the book sale kept me in school,’” McHold said.
The local scholarship fund now totals about $200,000, she said.
“Ann is just the exemplar of the kind of woman who was able to go to a college like Smith and benefit from it and give back,” Cox said.
Historically, the sale raises about $30,000 each year, but the annual earnings in the last few years have dropped by about one-third, McHold said.
“People don’t buy books anymore, so they don’t get rid of their books,” she said.
Last year the sale raised about $8,000, Helms said.
The Internet has also contributed to the slump in profits, according to book sale co-chairwoman Pat Thatcher. The average price of a book at the sale — about $1.50 — is no longer competitive with deals like eBay auctions prices of a book for a penny, she said.
“The Internet is changing this business, too, along with everything else,” Thatcher said.
She added, “Dealers are using the Internet and getting the books they want for a cent delivered to their doors. Here, they have to schlep through the shelves. Every year dealers grab hundreds of books, pull them into a corner and start scanning the bar codes and if they can’t make their margin, they drop and leave them. Our prices have halved because of the Internet.”
Helms attributes the demise of the sale to an aging volunteer base.
“The amount of work is overwhelming,” she said, adding, “The shelves are handmade, we have to pick up the books from donor’s homes — big, heavy boxes of books that we are thankful to get, but it’s a lot of work.
“People get very competitive at our book sale. Sometimes we have our calculators and we go through piles and piles of books — one for 50 cents, one for $1.50, two for 50 cents — and sometimes it will add up to $1,000. Someone will say, ’I think it’s $990, not $1,000; can you add this again?’”
On Tuesday, about 20 Smith Club volunteers pulled paperbacks and atlas-sized volumes from old English cucumber boxes and placed them on wooden shelves for the last time.
“It’s a piece of New Canaan history,” Helms said. “It’s a shame. But it’s on to the next idea that keeps us busy for another 50 years.”