AAUW State College Used Book Sale has been a bibliophile’s paradise for 57 years
If you’ve never been to the AAUW State College Used Book Sale, it’s a true sight to behold. With tables upon tables of books across 30 categories, all in pristine condition — at least for a used book sale — and all priced at a steal, it’s a bibliophile’s paradise each May.
However, the annual event, now in its 57th year, doesn’t come together overnight, and the behind-the-scenes action takes more volunteer man-hours and community involvement than you might expect.
“I would describe the book sale as kind of three-legged stool. There are three main elements to it,” says long-time volunteer and AAUW (American Association of University Women) member Connie Schroeder.
"First, we have a large group of really committed people in the community who donate the books. Our workshop opens for donations in the middle of June and we collect books until the middle of March. Almost year-round, we have people bringing books to us out at our workshop.
“The second leg of the stool is the volunteers who work out there every week. We’re open three days a week, culling the books, sorting the books, and pricing the books. It’s quite a large task with the volume of donations we get.
“The last of the leg of the stool, I guess you could say, is the shoppers. It’s truly become a strong community event. We pull in people from all walks of life, not just State College or Centre Region. People come from all over the country even. … The sale is always successful because of those three elements.”
The first leg of that stool, the community donors, turn up at the Boalsburg workshop with a wide array of items. Last year, a large number of La Vie Penn State yearbooks were donated, with issues dating back to the 1890s. Other years, large collections of sheet music have turned up on the workshop doorstep. Schroeder notes the group receives a lot of book donations from departments of universities “who are cleaning house.” These range in topic from history and philosophy to literature and foreign languages.
This year, donations stand out in a few key areas.
Sale shoppers can expect more than 1,000 comic book titles, from Marvel, DC Comics, and 100 smaller publishers; the vast majority of the comic books are in excellent condition. Collectors can be on the lookout for some rare first editions of 1985 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comics.
There’s also been a big increase in the number of children’s and young adult books being donated. Sherry Crassweller, co-chairman of the book sale workshop, has been pricing children’s books for about 25 years and says this year’s haul includes about 25 percent more children’s books than normal, alongside a large collection of puzzles and games.
However, not all donations find a home at the book sale. Known as a “clean” sale, the group holds its products to high standards.
“Sometimes we get donations with underlining or highlighting in them and we don’t sell those because we’re known as a clean sale, so I would cull the books that did not meet our criteria,” says Star Campbell, a volunteer for the last two years and member of the marketing and publicity committee. “Mostly, it’s that they’re damaged or mildewed or have water damage, those kinds of things.” She explains that the unsellable paperback books and magazines are recycled; as for the hardback books, the interior is recycled while the hard covers are cut off and discarded.
“Sometimes people have books in their attics or their basements for a very long time and they kind of decompose over the years. They just don’t sell well,” she explains.
While one might think the high quality and quantity of books found at the sale drives up the prices, that’s hardly the case. Many children’s and young adult books start at 50 cents and go up to a maximum of $5, while pricing for adult fiction and nonfiction books is about the same, hovering around $1 to $3. Later in the four-day event, prices plummet even further, to half-price day on Monday and then to Bag Day on Tuesday, when shoppers can fill their own bags with books at $7 per bag.
Even with such attractive offers, though, there are plenty of books to go around, even on the sale’s last day.
The group brings approximately 250,000 books to the sale, with the help of about 50 individuals who accept donations, sort, and price books June through March every year; several hundred people who spend a large chunk of time the day before the sale moving all the books from the workshop into Penn State’s Snider Agriculture Arena ahead of shoppers; and then many more volunteers – at least 50 at once – manning the sale itself, set for May 12-15 this year.
“It’s a very large volunteer initiative. We can’t do it alone,” Schroeder says.
While it’s a lot of work, for many of the volunteers it’s not a chore, but an absolute joy to be involved with the book sale in whatever capacity they can afford. It’s not uncommon for many volunteers to stick with the organization for 10, 20, or 30 years.
Campbell describes her own volunteer experience, saying, “I had gone to the sale for many years, but what surprised me [when I first started volunteering] was the camaraderie of volunteers at the workshop where books come in. It’s almost all women … [and] they’re just so passionate about books. Many of them volunteer two or three days a week and many of them are seasoned women of the community who just love books, in their 80s and 90s.
“The first day I was volunteering, I overheard two women talking [about when they graduated] and I calculated it and they were 92 and 95 years old. I nearly fell off my chair. I was just in awe. That’s something people don’t realize. Behind the scenes, the women and their ages and they still have that passion and that joy and they [still] come once or twice or three times a week to process the books.”
The passion for literature among the volunteer team is evident. They’re up to date on publishing trends, have a laundry list of favorite books, and can rattle off names of authors on cue. One perk of the job for them? Workshop volunteers can take home books during the year to read at their leisure, so long as they bring them back.
“You’re in this building with thousands of books and it’s like being in a candy store,” says Campbell.
Beyond the literary fun though, the initiative is still intrinsically tied to the AAUW’s mission of promoting equity for girls and women in the areas of education, philanthropy, and research. The funds raised from the book sale go toward scholarships to Centre County women who have begun or resumed college as adult learners, as well as grants to local nonprofit organizations and community and school libraries. AAUW also sponsors STEM programs for middle school girls and youth and science camp scholarships for girls and delivers mission-based programs on topics relevant to women.
“We focus on Centre County,” explains Connie Wheeler, the co-chairman of the branch’s community grant committee. “The grants have to be for Centre County because the majority of the books come from Centre County. We’re giving back to this community the money from the books they donate.”
This is what Schroeder says is the primary reason for her continuing involvement. “We have a banquet at the end of the year where we award the scholarships, and that’s also when we distribute the community grants. Getting to meet those people and hearing how the money we awarded to them helps them is extremely rewarding. That’s it for me in a nutshell. There are other things – friendship, a lot of aspects – but for me, it’s the mission-based programs that we help.”
It’s only a lucky coincidence the funds are raised in a manner that’s not only a great value for the community, but also such an enjoyable experience for the volunteers.
For shoppers planning to attend this year’s book sale, the women offered a few words of advice.
“Be prepared. If you’re going to purchase a lot of books, we encourage people to bring bags. Saturday morning is the busiest time. If you have young children, it’s best to wait until Saturday afternoon, because it’s very, very crowded in the morning,” says Crassweller. “We have so many books, many by the same author and in the same genre, so there are plenty left over on Sunday and on Monday, half-price day.”
The Saturday morning crowds are no joke, as Wheeler echoes: “I especially enjoy watching Saturday morning when the first hordes come in. They get in line early in the morning. Last year … the line lasted until after lunch on Saturday. If you want to browse, Sunday morning is an excellent time to come. Saturday morning is very busy. There are a lot of books and you don’t [have] to be there first thing Saturday morning.”
Parking is free and payment is only accepted via cash or check.
For individuals interested in volunteering with the book sale, Campbell explains there are two ways to do this. “One [way] is to become an AAUW member, which enables one to volunteer throughout the year in the used book workshop processing the books, as well as working at the sale; the other is to just volunteer – you don't have to be a member – at the four-day used book sale.”
The Used Book Sale runs from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. May 12-15 at Snider Ag Arena. For more information, visit aauwstatecollege.org.
Holly Riddle is a freelance writer in State College.