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Sunday, June 16, 2024

“Hey, kiddo.”

This is Sally, greeting me as I arrive at my “job” at Friends of the Library, where, indeed, I am a kiddo compared to many of the volunteers. Until I started working at Friends of the Library, no one had called me “kiddo” since my great-aunts did a long time ago.

I was trained; this is an organization that takes itself seriously.

The entry-level position is working three hours a week as a “sorter.” My time slot was Mondays from 9 a.m. to noon. In January 2004, when I started, the Monday morning group was a fun bunch — mostly old-timers who had worked together for years, maybe decades.

Elizabeth, who is my mother’s age, was the go-to person if you didn’t know where to put a book. Sorters go through the voluminous donations and organize the books according to category.

I found some of the categories strange but quaint — holdovers from an earlier time. Like “Agriculture,” which included the anatomy of insects as well as landscape gardening.

The “table coordinator” — that is to say the person who organizes and prices books in a certain category — for Agriculture was Sandy, and she couldn’t be less “country.”

Once as a joke, the building manager, Jim, who was in the process of upgrading the signs that hang above the tables to identify them, changed “Agriculture” to “Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll” and waited to see Sandy’s reaction.

Sandy and her friend Pat then played a practical joke on Jim. Apparently he had made fun of Valentine’s Day, so they made him a giant valentine, complete with Hershey’s Kisses and pop-ups — and all manner of Valentine’s books, of course.

One time I walked into the kitchen/office — and the only air-conditioned and heated part of the “Bookhouse” — and heard Pat say, about someone who had lost weight, “But boy, let me tell you, honey, she found it again.”

The office has been the site of much storytelling and laughter: jokes, family fiascos, tales of yore.

I was a sorter for less than a year because the “book sale coordinators,” Ann and Billie, who manhandle this massive volunteer operation to mount the spring and fall book sales, needed someone to take over the videotape table. This was when VHS was still widely used and DVD donations were few.

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It was a wonderful table to work because every movie you have ever heard of, those you haven’t, movies you hadn’t thought about in years, movies you always wanted to see and movies you have fond memories of came through, and you could look at the covers and read the backs for a little chunk of happiness.

It was a popular table with the volunteers, and people were always coming back to chat and peruse the products.

Bill, a white-haired, retired, engineering professor, was visiting one day. I had been listening to a CD in my car and asked him if he knew what “entropy” meant.

It turned out I had asked the right person. Bill had written a paper on this very subject, and the next week he brought it in for me to read.

Bill was friends with Katy Dunn (no one ever called her just “Katy” that I’m aware of), who passed away a few years ago. She was something of a legend at Friends of the Library and had done many things, but when I was working there, she mended damaged books.

Katy lived on a farm outside Hawthorne, and she and her husband had spent many summers in England. She told Bill she had been to every pub in Cornwall described in Bill Bryson’s book.

Bill said he enjoyed approaching Katy with a line of poetry and hearing her respond with the whole poem. So: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” was greeted with “Ozymandias!” and ten more lines.

When Bill looked astounded, she said softly, “Bill, you don’t know Shelley?”

A year and a half after I became “the videotape lady,” I had 15,000 videos to deal with for several sales in a row. It was a bit overwhelming: My table would be stacked up like I was building a videotape mansion.

I still liked it, though, and got repeat customers at the sales and learned what kinds of things different people liked. I have since turned the table over to a newer, fresher volunteer.

As Billie once said, “There is no amount of money I would take for this job.”

But there are, of course, other things.

I liked it when Joann, who is not a Southerner like me but from rural Wisconsin, agreed with me one day in the kitchen that she didn’t care for mountains because “you might fall off.” I had always thought I was crazy to think that and mostly kept it to myself.

It’s one reason I like living in Florida.

Elizabeth once said, in a conversation about our constant space problem, “You can always fit in one more book.”

And you can, if you’re clever.

We are all constant recyclers.

For most people, this was a habit long before it became fashionable. Boxes that contained donations are broken down and used to soak up the water that flows down the ramp into the Bookhouse during a heavy rain.

If I have sweets in the house that are tempting my constantly dieting husband, I take them to the Bookhouse.

People have no problem with a partially eaten peach cobbler, red velvet cake or the like.

Sue loves dogs. She calls her two “the kids.” She asks me about my new former stray (“How’s the girl?”) and shows me pictures of her dogs over the ages. She’ll take in dogs nobody else wants.

There are several husband-and-wife teams. They may work together or, in the case of Bob, become a regular volunteer after Joann, his wife, passed away.

I became friendly with one of the husband-and-wife teams, Johnny and Mary, after I realized they reminded me of my relatives.

One winter, Johnny brought in carton after carton of grapefruits because he and Mary and their kids and grandkids and neighbors couldn’t eat them all. The problem had started when he threatened a nonproducing tree with a chainsaw the summer before.

And then there are the treasures.

Everybody has a story: the Civil War-era newspaper found behind the frame of a donated painting; the money found inside books (the record is $870); the prized videotape, tied down in a copyright dispute, unavailable on DVD and hard to find; or the out-of-print children’s book.

Sometimes the things that are given to us by mistake can be traced back to the owner and returned, but not always.

My own favorite moment was when Jim pulled a letter out of a book and discovered it was written by Lindbergh.

That would be THE Lindbergh.

Jim was awestruck, and everyone working nearby ran over to see what it was and to hold it. It was typed on that vellum-type paper you would use if you were doing the sets for an old movie, and there at the bottom was the signature.

Very cool.

Twice every year, one of my favorite moments is just before the sale begins at 9 a.m. on Saturday.

The shelves are artfully arranged, the aisles are clear, the smell of old books fills the air, volunteers pace with anticipation, the line outside is buzzing. A half hour later, it is complete pandemonium but exciting nevertheless.

The fall sale starts on Oct. 27 and lasts five days, ending this year on Halloween. It will be one of the most rewarding things you do this semester, I guarantee it.

You can contact Sarah via opinions@alligator.org.

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