Ages Ago, Today

I’m sure all of us have experienced something like this: you’re going through your daily life, end up doing something somewhat out of the norm, and suddenly you’re hit by the memory of something from your distant past that you’ve forgotten about until now.


I had that today.


Jenni’s a sucker for books, so when she found out that the Ramsey County Library was having a book sale at their Roseville location this weekend, she’d decided that she had to check it out. So today, she and I headed out for a bit so she could check out the sale.


We walked into the library, and not far from the entry door was the door to a large multipurpose room. I plunked down our 3 bucks to get the bag which we could fill to our hearts’ content, and we walked into the room. We were greeted by a mob of people and five or six rows of tables absolutely stuffed with books.


And then it hit me. I’ve seen this before. Heck, I’ve even worked it.


Ages ago, back when mom was with the Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library, they would hold a huge fundraiser in the auditorium of the old Central Library. And, being that mom always knew how to best volunteer her kids for volunteer jobs she had, it was arranged for me to work at the sales–several years (three, if I remember right).


I was to report to Marcella, who organized the sales, and whom, I must say, was the absolute spot-on image of what an old retired school teacher would be. For some reason, I want to say that I think mom told me she was 90 when I started working the sales, though whether that’s right or wrong is almost irrelevant: she was stern, harsh, matter-of-fact, and fairly authoritarian when it came to the rules of the sale and how it was to be run. In short, she scared me.


My job, just to make matters that more tense, was to run money from cashiers to a centralized location so that the cashiers stationed in the hallway outside of the auditorium never had too much cash on hand, nor were out of change. I was given an apron to wear around my waist, and I was told very specifically to always carry the money in the pockets of the apron, and only get it out when I was either at a cashier, or at the room where the money was secured–Marcella was very clear on this point because, it seemed, she trusted no one: not me, not the cashiers, and not the people who spent time hanging out in that hallway between the two halves of the old library building.


At the time, I was running a blinding amount of cash–perhaps $100 or $200 at a time, recalling her stern warning while still trying to swiftly and efficiently make my way back and forth. The weight of the responsibility rested firmly and heavily on my shoulders.


The sale would open for the day around 8 or 9 a.m.–I don’t recall which. I’d head downtown to work with mom, drop my jacket and any other stuff I brought with me in her office, and head back downstairs to report in. I’d be assigned my gear, and then we’d wait for the doors to open.


I’d wander the layout for a bit before things started happening: boxes of books, records, magazines, and other things that had been in the library’s collection before they were retired lined shelves around the hall that went around the auditorium. Boxes also lined the edge of the stage, and in some of the rows of seating, depending on how much stuff there was to sell. Those of us working the sale had the chance to set aside items we wanted to buy at that time, and I think I picked up a few things. But everything, and I mean everything was priced, which now that I think about it, was probably a herculean task. And how do I know that every single piece was priced individually? Because a few years later, I was asked to price out some of the more current record albums they had for sale.


We’d wait behind the glass doors of the auditorium. And invariably, there would be some sort of crowd waiting to get in. And then, right on time, Marcella would call out with the order to open the doors, and the throng would push in, pushing past me and the stack or two of ones and fives I had in my apron.


There were different types of people at these sales: there were those who would make a bee-line for a specific section, and return immediately with a full box or two of some complete collection: Harlequin romance novels, or a retired encyclopedia set that was obsolete 20 years earlier. Once in a while, someone would come out with a twine-bundled set of National Geographic magazines (so old, at the time, that they didn’t have a cover photo, just a table of contents of what was inside; or an entire year of Playboy, or a stack of record albums. There were those who would go in and spend hours wandering the offerings, plucking out one or two items, and bringing up some time-worn, dog-eared paperback and hardcover that probably hadn’t been checked out but five or ten times in its entire lifetime.


People would bring the items to the cashiers, and most would try to haggle a price, especially on entire boxes of books. The cashier might make an offer, but they’d always lean back and ask Marcella for the ultimate OK for the price they’d just quoted. Sometimes, she’d play hardball, saying this is a fundraiser as much as it was to get rid of old books, and sometimes, she’d tell the cashier to take any offer because she really wanted to get rid of that box and had no desire to haul it back upstairs to the stacks. Yes, she also knew her inventory.


So it was that what I saw today was something I’d already seen. Jenni and the others at the sale methodically went through the volumes, trying to find those items they were hoping for. But it’s a crap shoot, but it didn’t deter Jenni: she came out with two $3 bags of books, most of which were bought because of the description in the dust jacket, or because of the spine and cover design. Still, though, there’s one thing about these sales: I don’t think anyone goes away unhappy.


And I walked away from the sales thirty years ago with a memory that didn’t return until today. But they’re all good memories: no matter how tough Marcella was, she still appreciated hard and good work. And so I’d always get a handwritten note from her after the sale, thanking me for my effort in making the sale a great success.


And yes, her handwriting was impeccable.


See you tomorrow.