Friday 25 November 2011

Forty years and $1.5 million later, McGill Book Fair bites the dust

Book Fair coordinator Victoria Lees unloads boxes at Redpath Hall. Photo: Owain Harris

The volunteer-run sale of books, CDs and DVDs, which has raised over $1.5 million in endowment funds for student scholarships and bursaries, just doesn’t have enough volunteers to keep going.

The Book Fair committee took a vote on the question of whether or not they could continue on Sept. 13th.

“It was a sad decision but it was a unanimous one,” said Victoria Lees, a Book Fair volunteer for the past eight years, and coordinator for the last four.

Many tears were shed said Lees, a former Secretary-General of McGill, but in the end, it all came down to the fact that “younger people aren’t that interested in volunteering.”

The Book Fair committee is composed of 23 women and one man. Most are retired McGill employees, with many in their mid-seventies and some in their mid-eighties.

Another 150 or so volunteers are recruited for the three-day sale itself, to be held this year from Oct. 18 - 20. The best recruits are the friends of other volunteers, Lees said, but at this point their network has been exhausted.

Books, CDs, DVDs and albums, new and used, are donated and collected at depots around Montreal. The committee starts work each year in February, receiving and sorting through thousands of donations. Last year’s sale raised $85,000.

Lees says many of the books that come her way are from people who are closing up their parents’ apartments or homes. The work can involve the unpacking of “often filthy" boxes.

“For every 50 to 55 thousand books we put on sale each year, we must process about 10 times that number," Lees said. "There’s a tremendous amount of sorting and moving of heavy boxes. Redpath Hall is a great location but there are lots of stairs involved.”

The promise of a rare find has attracted amateur collectors and book dealers come from Ontario, New England, and throughout Quebec over the years.

Occasionally, there are incredible finds. One year, Lees recounted, two first-edition James Bond novels in mint condition were uncovered—hard covers with their dust jackets. They fetched $11,400. There’s a lesson in that, Lees said.

“Never throw away a dust jacket. Ninety percent of the value of a book from the 20th century is in the dust jacket.”

Another year, Lees came across a first edition of Samuel Johnson’s "Dictionary of the English Language." It went to the Rare Books Collection at McGill for $1,800, a sum Lees calls “a real bargain. That’s the sort of thing that makes me saddest about all this. What will happen to all these books? That’s the thing that breaks my heart.”

Besides volunteers, about 20 students are hired to work as cashiers or security agents for the Book Fair. Jonathan Haines has been the hiring manager for the past three years; for two years before that, while a McGill linguistics student himself, he was one of the student hires.

Haines said he’s sad about the Book Fair’s demise, “as are a lot of the students I’ve mentioned it to. It’s a loss not just for McGill but for Montreal, and also for the regional community.”

Customers are from all walks of life, though they are mostly students, according to Haines. Books are available in English, French, and foreign languages.

Parents would bring their children and spend hours together at the Book Fair. “It’s an opportunity not just to buy books but a way of being around books that’s completely different,” Haines said.

McGill University administration officials did not respond to OpenFile's request for comment, but Haines said he’s “been hearing a lot of people talk about what can be done.

“People are thinking about this. It’s not a totally lost cause.”

Beverly Akerman is author of the story collection, "The Meaning Of Children."

Originally reported on October 18, 2011 at OpenFileMTL.

The final McGill Book Fair took place:

Tuesday, October 18, 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Wednesday, October 19, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Thursday, October 20, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Location: Redpath Hall (east side of McTavish Street, one block north of Sherbrooke)
3461 McTavish (McTavish Gates)
Montreal, QC, H3A 2K6

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