November 2013 Features

Books for a Cause

The largest used-book sale on the East Coast supports scholarships at Bryn Mawr.

By Priya Ratneshwar

Paige Dennis '12, Beth Ogilvie-Freda '86, Marianne Hooker '72, and Mary Little Cooper '68 at the 2013 sale.

Paige Dennis ’12, Beth Ogilvie-Freda ’86, Marianne Hooker ’72, and Mary Little Cooper ’68 at the 2013 sale.

In 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, a group of Princeton-area Bryn Mawr alumnae decided to hold a used-book sale to raise funds for young women who couldn’t afford a college education. Each week, the women would gather and call their acquaintances for book donations. One of them would store the bounty in her garage. Their efforts culminated in a modest sale; a single volunteer could carry all the proceeds to the bank in her bicycle basket.

Fast-forward 82 years. The now-annual fundraiser—called the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale since 2000 when alums of the two colleges joined forces—is the longest-running and largest used-book-selling endeavor on the East Coast. Offering for purchase between 80,000 and 120,000 used books, it has graduated from garages and bicycles to professional storage facilities and moving trucks. More than 3,000 people came to the 2013 sale, which employed 110 volunteers, including Bryn Mawr and Wellesley alumnae and members of the Princeton community.

“It’s a sight to be seen,” says Beth Ogilvie-Freda ’86, president of the Princeton Club. “On the first day of the sale, we have a police officer there to monitor the crowd.”

For the past several years, the sale has taken place at the Princeton Day School during its spring break. An admission price is charged for entrance on the inaugural sale day. First in line are used-book dealers, who enter in order of lottery numbers they have been assigned. Books remaining on the penultimate day go for half-price, and the last day is “box day”—when book-lovers can carry away everything they can fit in a box for $5. In the final hours before the sale ends, representatives from local nonprofits are invited to take as many books as they want for free.

Although the whole event spans just short of two hectic weeks, preparations take place year-round. Since 1989 Sarah Ferguson ’79, the sale’s only paid employee, has managed the warehouse, an old barn in downtown Princeton where the people can drop off their books every Wednesday and Saturday morning. In addition to keeping the barn open for collections and packaging up donations for storage, Ferguson draws on her master’s degree in library science from Columbia University and her experience as a rare book cataloguer to help with the appraisal and pricing of books (along with volunteer Fran Reichl).

“One of the best parts of working with the book sale,” Ferguson says, “is the delight of knowing the very interesting women who went to Bryn Mawr before me—and now after me.”

The camaraderie, Ogilvie-Freda says, not only motivates volunteers to work in the book barn “when it’s 40 degrees inside with a heater” but also keeps some alums involved even after they’ve moved far away. Every year, Marianne Hooker ’72 travels to Princeton from western Pennsylvania to help out, and Yasmine Sanderson ’86 draws up table charts for book placements from her home in Germany.

In addition to the commitment of alumnae volunteers, Ogilvie-Freda also credits the Princeton community with playing a key role in the sale’s endurance. “A lot of well-known scholars will donate their libraries to the sale,” Ogilvie-Freda says, “and I’d like to think that shows how much they respect it.” Last year, the late Peter Oppenheimer, an avid book collector and well-known Princeton resident, left the sale a bequest of more than 7,500 books (many of which will be available for purchase in March).

Despite the support the sale inspires, organizers struggle increasingly with its viability in the face of rising fixed costs. Ultimately, Ogilvie-Freda says, it is the prospect of “making a difference” that keeps them going. The two colleges split the proceeds 50/50, and in 2013 donated $15,000 to scholarships for Bryn Mawr students.

Marianne Grey ’56 says she began volunteering for the sale in 1973 in order to “pay the College back” for the Alumnae Regional Scholarship she received. “I didn’t think I would still be working on it so actively at 80,” says Grey, who helps appraise art books and helps runs the “Collector’s Corner” table at the sale. “It’s a considerable undertaking for volunteers, and I think it’s just sort of sheer cussedness that keeps us going.”

The 2014 Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale will take place from March 21 to 25. All alumnae/i are welcome to volunteer. For more information, go to bmandwbooks.com.

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