Spring Book Sales


Springtime in Washington brings cherry blossoms, azaleas, girls in their summer dresses, and the Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart Used Book Sale. It opens today, April 20, and runs through the weekend.

When I first came to our nation’s capital back in the mid-1970s, there were a half dozen major used-book extravaganzas each year. In fact, a good proportion of my library was founded on buys from the Vassar, Brandeis, Goodwill, State Department, and Stone Ridge sales. In those days dealers and scouts would arrive from up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and the especially stalwart would start queuing the night before, hunkering down in sleeping bags with Thermoses of coffee and bags of doughnuts. It was said that Larry McMurtry—then owner of Booked Up, a high-end shop in Georgetown—sometimes hired a college kid to camp out at the front of the line, so that the novelist could stroll in just before the 9 A.M. opening, take the student’s place, and be among the first through the doors into the school gymnasium.

Casting decorum aside, people would race toward the laden tables, the traditional wisdom being that the really good books would be snatched up within the first 20 minutes. Sometimes this was true, albeit less so now, with the advent of “continuous restocking.” I’ve sometimes even found more interesting titles on the second day of a three-day sale. One year, for instance, I picked up first editions, albeit ex-library, of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Isaac Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky. Each was a dollar. Another time I bought—admittedly for $50—a copy of The Good Soldier, one of my favorite novels, signed by its author, Ford Madox Ford. Because I’m drawn to a lot of writers that few other people still read, I can often find works by, say, Martin Armstrong or T. F. Powys or Gerald Bullett or Stella Benson, authors quickly passed over by fans desperately seeking to complete their collections of John Grisham or Charlaine Harris. Above all, though, big book sales remain marvelous realms of serendipity, and one never knows what will turn up. I once bought the many-volumed complete works of William Hazlitt for a buck a book. As Larry McMurtry’s character Cadillac Jack reminds us in the novel of that name, “Anything can be anywhere.”

Despite some serious competition, Stone Ridge has always been my favorite biblio-blowout, so I’m glad it’s still going strong. While standing in line there one year, I joked with a group of friends that we should design a denim jacket for book collectors. On its back would be the stenciled words: “Born to Read.” For a couple of years the Stone Ridge organizers actually had me conduct “bookman’s tours” of the gym’s tables. In the quiet of the afternoon I’d walk around with a small group of people, pluck titles from Travel or Biography or Poetry or Children’s Literature, and explain why these choice volumes were collectible, underpriced, or simply well worth reading.

Sadly, I’ll only get to the Stone Ridge Sale this year on Saturday, because of a talk I’m giving at a conference at—lah-dee-dah—Princeton. Still, it’s not as though I really needed to bring home any more books. No, what I most cherish is that inexplicable feeling of buoyant youthfulness that overtakes me as I wander among the tables and shelves, gradually filling up one of those sturdy L. L. Bean canvas boating bags. And maybe a box or two as well. After a couple of hours I’ll feel grotty and tired and very happy. At the checkout, I’ll spring for a soda and a pastry from the girls selling refreshments. And come the evening I’ll wonder what ever possessed me to shell out good money for half the books in my trove—though a month later I’ll congratulate myself on having been so wise as to secure all these really quite remarkable treasures. Memory of their cost will have long vanished. As book collectors know all too well, we only regret our economies, never our extravagances.


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Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and the author, most recently, of Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. Its essays originally appeared on the home page of The American Scholar.


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