Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the AAUW Booksale (Including the Tomato Boxes)
May 01, 2015 6:15 AM
by Steve Bauer
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It all comes down to the tomato boxes.

Lots and lots of tomato boxes.

That's one of the secrets behind the colossal book sale staged by the State College branch of the American Association of University Women each spring.

"Can you imagine trying to stack things that aren't the same size?" asks Donna Trapp, director of the AAUW's 54th Annual Used Book Sale which will be held from May 9-12.

Donna Trapp is sitting on a pile of tomato boxes as she speaks. Each box is crammed full of books. And there are a lot of them -- roughly 4,000 tomato boxes (all the same size and all stacked together neatly) that rise above Trapp, nearly 20 feet high, tucked inside a good-sized storage room at the AAUW headquarters building in College Township.

The tomato boxes have become something of a tradition over the years.  They're used to store and transport the motherlode of books that have made the AAUW book sale famous. "Every year we bring in more and more boxes and we never throw them away," says Trapp.

Not far away, in the sorting room, longtime AAUW member Louise Tukey is furiously pricing books -- one every few seconds. How does she know how much to charge for any particular tome? "We know what sells and we know how to price after we've done it so long," she says. "The people who [price] children's books know exactly what Dr. Seuss should be, or Nancy Drew should be, or whatever."

Tukey is one of the founders of the AAUW book sale and has been a part of this massive undertaking since it began 54 years ago.

"This is big business," proclaims Tukey. "We have dealers who come from all along the East Coast, from Philadelphia, New York City, New Hampshire, whatever. We've had people from Iowa -- all over the place."


The Heavy Hitters

Genre of books that are most popular and the biggest sellers: 

1) Mysteries

2) Children's

3) Cookbooks

(However, art books and collectible books are by far the biggest money makers.)


Tukey vividly remembers the book sale's modest beginnings. "We started in 1962. We had a few boxes ... and we made $179. Now, after 53 years we're making $140,000 every year. People are still reading books, in spite of the Nooks and other methods."

Longtime book sale fans will tell you there is a rhythm to the annual four day event. "The first day we get most of the book dealers and they wait in line Friday night," recalls Trapp.

Up to 1,000 people, including those professional dealers, rush in when the doors first open Saturday morning, scooping up books by the armload.

The dealers are looking for books they can resell for a quick profit.

"They do a lot of text books because those they can make money on," says Trapp. "They have scanners that will tell them an average price, they'll scan a barcode. I think it will tell them the average price on Amazon.com."

Some of the dealers scoop up several hundred books, using carts to haul them away.


But long before the books go on sale, there's a lot that has to happen. First, tens of thousands of books, that have been stored in those tomato boxes, have to be sorted.

The books, which are donated throughout the year, are sorted into 33 different categories, from biography to history and from comedy to religion. And there are quality control issues to decide.

So which books don't make the cut? "Any books that are moldy, out of date -- we did find a mouse in a box once -- those types of things," says Trapp while adding, "We do recycle all of the paper. We had about 10 tons of recycling last year, so the recycling people love us."

Before books go to the recycling bin somebody has to rip off their covers because the covers can't be recycled.


Once sorted, donated books go into the tomato boxes and are ready to be priced. "We have pricers ... most of them have some kind of expertise in that particular area or they've been pricing them for so long they have that sense of what a book is worth," says Trapp. "We do price them really low. It is amazing how low our books are priced."

After being priced the books go back into the tomato boxes. (Yes, again.) Nobody knows how much all those books weigh, but as you can imagine, they weigh an awful lot. That's why the AAUW has to use a storage space with concrete floors which won't collapse under the immense load.

Moving Day

Five trucks are used to haul the books from the AAUW's storage facility to the Ag Arena on the Penn State campus which houses the book sale.

Hundreds of volunteers help out while setting up for the sale and during the actual event, which incidentally, is always held on the same weekend as Mother's Day.

How does Trapp describe what happens when all those books are moved and placed on display? "Organized chaos," she says laughing, "Luckily, a lot of the people who are the core volunteers have done this before."


AAUW Book Sale By The Numbers:

147,000 In dollars, approximate value of books purchased during the 2014 booksale

100,000 Approximate number of books available at this year's sale

95,000 In dollars, approximate value of scholarships and community grants that are awarded each year

8,000 Rough number of people who attend the four day book sale

4,000 Number of tomato boxes needed to hold all of those books

1,000 Number of bargain hunters who typically jam into the book sale during the first 20 minutes

250 Volunteers needed to sort & price books and to help out during the sale

179 In dollars, the amount raised during the first sale in 1962

54 number of consecutive years the book sale has been held

10 In tons, the weight of damaged or unusable books that were recycled in 2014

1 Grocery bag you can fill with leftover books on Tuesday for just $5


The Mission

The AAUW's mission is to promote equity for women and girls. And money raised by the book sale is used solely for that purpose. It pays for two things: scholarships and community grants.

"We have up to four scholarships for women who are either going to college for the first time or returning to college because their college career was interrupted somehow," explains Trapp.

Each of those scholarships are worth somewhere between $5,000 and $7,000. Applicants have to tell the AAUW Scholarship Committee how much they need and prove financial need. They also have to outline their career goals.

Organizations requesting community grants have to explain how their work fulfills the AAUW's mission. Some grants go to school libraries that request money to purchase new books. "A lot of time those books can be biographies of women or really, 50 percent of their constituents are girls so that covers that," says Trapp.

"We also look at things such as social equity and availability of health care. So if Centre Volunteers in Medicine requests money for their dental program ... approximately 50 percent of their patients are women and girls who don't have opportunities for dental services or health services."

Organizations that have also been awarded AAUW grants in recent years include the Centre County Women's Resorce Centre, Schlow Library and the Jana Marie Foundation.

The Sale

The book sale is pretty much a free-for-all when the doors open at nine o'clock Saturday morning but things quiet down after that. Once the book dealers are gone, thousands of ordinary book lovers spend hours picking through the selection, stacked on some 250 tables.

Keep in mind the AAUW accepts cash and checks -- but not credit cards.

The regular sale continues on Sunday but it's a bargain hunter's paradise after that.

Monday is Half-Price day when all remaining books are 50 percent off. Tuesday is Bag Day, and people can take "whatever they can fill in a grocery bag for five bucks."

On Wednesday, a man who supplies books to other charitable causes takes some of the remaining books. Then students from the State College Area School District Delta Program come in select the books they want.

Anything left after that is recycled. "Everything must go," proclaims Trapp.

Then, after taking a month off, the AAUW begins work on next year's sale.

And that means collecting all of those empty tomato boxes and starting over.

All that's left to ask is what makes the AAUW book sale so popular? "People still want to hold a book in their hand and turn the pages," says Louise Tukey firmly, still furiously pricing books.


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