The year was 1931. The country was in the middle of a serious economic set-back that came to be known as “The Great Depression.” Young women, who a few years earlier had imagined that a college education would be in their future, were finding it necessary to revise their career plans. With nationwide unemployment at 25 percent, college was clearly a luxury item for many households.
It was at this time that a group of Bryn Mawr College graduates came up with the idea of raising scholarship money to help the young women who couldn’t afford a college education. In Princeton, where there is no shortage of readers, selling used books seemed to be the ideal solution. The only remaining problem was to find a way to accumulate an inventory to sell. This was solved in a fashion of cooperative solicitation. Each week the women would meet as a group and line by line read through the Princeton telephone book until one of the group recognized a name and volunteered to call the party to see if there were any books they were willing to part with. The ladies would drive to each home, gather their treasures and store them in one of their garages.
The sale was held variously in one of the Princeton firehouses, Miss Fine's School gym (now Suzanne Patterson Center), Princeton Day School (PDS) old open air hockey rink, Lawrenceville School Rink, and the Baker Rink at Princeton University. In short the book sale has been a moveable feast. In those days the sale was so small that when it was over, one of the volunteers would carry all the proceeds to the bank in her bicycle basket.
Wellesley to the Rescue
In 2000, a shortage of volunteers threatened to put an end to the operation but at that crucial point, the Wellesley Club joined forces with the Bryn Mawr group and added a large influx of willing volunteers to the enterprise. The name of the sale was changed to the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale to reflect the combined participation. Both alumnae groups donate scholarship funds to their respective colleges from the proceeds of the sale.
It is the longest-running and largest used-book-selling endeavor on the East Coast. Over the years the sale has become a valued community institution providing an important service by collecting and recycling books in an environmentally sound manner and by making the books available - at bargain prices - in a sales event that brings the whole community together in a thoroughly pleasant and satisfying experience.
How it All Works
The site where donors drop off their books, a small barn behind a Victorian home at 32 Vandeventer Avenue, is not exactly an easy address to find. Despite that, and the odd hours of operation, donors flock there to give away their treasures. Some are moving to smaller living quarters; some are settling their parents’ estates. Whatever the reasons, dozens of people arrive weekly to bring their books, lamenting the necessity to part with them. Some have even been known to return to the sale to buy back the books they donated!
At the barn the books are sorted into some 67 categories, boxed and stored for a time until the number exceeds the capacity of the barn. At that point they are shipped out by movers to a commercial warehouse until spring when the annual sale is held. In the week prior to the book sale, the books are delivered to PDS and arranged, according to categories, on 200 tables. On the last night of the sale preparation week, the clubs host an onsite party to thank the volunteers for their participation but the work doesn't end there. Once the sale begins many hands are needed to maintain the orderliness of the tables, man the cashier stations, gather statistics on the sale, and provide information and assistance to customers. More than 100 volunteers take part in some phase of the sale. And while the volunteer cadre is comprised primarily of Bryn Mawr and Wellesley alumnae, their ranks are significantly increased by friends, family (spouses, children, parents of current and past students),and other Princetonians who are drawn to participate by their love of books. The sale is truly a community service, a community production, and a community celebration.
Although the work that goes into the two weeks' preparation and sale can be exhausting, most of the volunteers agree that it is one of the highlights of their year. The feeling of accomplishment that goes with knowing that because of your efforts several young women will have the funds to attend college is fundamental. But there is an additional benefit, not to be underestimated, that comes from the camaraderie among those participating in any of the phases of the operation from sorting and boxing in the barn to cleaning up at the sale's close.
You Can Join in the Fun
We're always looking for volunteers, not just for the sale, but to help out in the barn. Drop by the barn when we're open. We don't take roll or worry if you're late, we will simply be very pleased to have you join us.
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