A used-book sale’s swan song

April 10

“The used Book Sale is no longer accepting donations. Thank you.” This is the pop-up message now displayed on the home page of the “Stone Ridge Used Book Sale.” “No longer,” by the way, doesn’t mean just for this year. Four days from now, this fabulous book blowout — which draws happy customers from all over the Mid-Atlantic region — will join the much-missed Brandeis, Vassar and Goodwill sales among the cherished memories of Washington readers and bibliophiles. Of the onetime “big five,” only the State Department sale, held in October, still soldiers on.

Organized by the Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart and offering more than 125,000 donated hardbacks and paperbacks, this 46th — and last — door-busting spectacular opens Friday at 8 a.m. and ends Monday at 8 p.m. Year in, year out, the most avid dealers and collectors have always lined up early in the morning, or even the night before, so as to get first crack at the waiting treasures. In my own case, even though I write about books for a living, I never willingly miss the Stone Ridge sale. Just last year, for instance, I picked up the original New York edition of Henry James’s novels and stories, all 26 volumes. Another year I took home a signed copy of Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier,” one of my favorite novels. It opens famously, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” Of course, Ford didn’t know about the end of the Stone Ridge Used Book Sale.

According to a news release, the decision to call it quits was made for multiple reasons, but the main one is simply that this distinguished Catholic girls’ school — which is undergoing considerable expansion — wants to devote its time, energy and resources elsewhere. As it is, the sale requires a huge barn to store books from roughly 3,000 donors annually, plus 12 to 14 volunteers each week throughout the year to sort and organize the donations, and, not least, the use of the school’s three gymnasiums over four crazed days, with the help of more than 600 students, parents and alumni to restock tables and run the cash registers. All the proceeds are earmarked for scholarships and other forms of student assistance, though the book sale now generates only 10 percent of the financial aid budget.

This past Wednesday evening Stone Ridge toasted, with champagne and strawberries, the community of women (and a few men) who over the years have made this annual book lover’s dream a reality. Head of School Catherine Ronan Karrels thanked many volunteers by name; longtime co-directors Judy Hansen and Becky Meloan shared a moving letter from 17-year-old Emily Tennant describing the book sale’s importance to her family and her own reading life; and special guest (and Stone Ridge alum) journalist Cokie Roberts spoke of how much she would miss the sale personally, if only because it was where she sent “truckloads” of unwanted books, most of them bearing titles like “The Economy of Burkina-Faso.”

Speaking for the sales’ devotees, whether as donors, organizers or customers, I can truthfully say that some of the happiest hours of my life have been spent scanning its heavy-laden tables, scampering from Vintage Fiction to Science Fiction to Children’s Literature to Rare Collectibles to Essays to Biography to Foreign Language titles, elbowing and being elbowed, enjoying the occasional shouting match between rival dealers reaching for the same title, pausing for a moment to chat with David or Peat or Kelly or other friends and fellow prospectors, toting heavy boxes and L.L. Bean canvas bags into a corner and covering them with my coat to mark them as my own, and eventually taking a short break to enjoy a glazed donut and coffee in the lobby—before returning to the fray.

And one must return, after all. These days big book sales have all instituted what’s called “continuous restocking.” This means that as the day goes on, Stone Ridge students or alumni wheel in book trolleys and replenish depleted tables with fresh goodies. More often than not, the more rabid dealers and collectors will spot a trolley and follow it to, say, Travel and Exploration, then hover nearby as the volunteer places the books, spine up, on the table. Hands will tremble in anticipation, but protocol demands that one refrain from grabbing until the staffer finishes emptying his or her box, thank you very much. Because of such continuous restocking a confirmed bookaholic can’t in good conscience leave the sale until it closes for the day. The find of a lifetime could appear at any moment.

For who knows what might turn up? Consider just the works on this year’s special “Collectibles List.” Aging lefties can buy a multi-volume set of the complete works of Lenin or, if your politics veer to the right, books signed by Margaret Thatcher and Richard Nixon. Metallurgists can finally acquire — a dream come true — their very own copy of “Corrosion of Zinc and Zinc Alloys.” Medical students can fight over “Tumors and Proliferation of Adipose Tissue: A Clinicopathologic Approach.” And if your father graduated from Yale in 1948, you’ll certainly want to check out his senior picture in the Yale Class Book for that year. But even if you just need paperback mysteries or new science fiction for this summer on the Eastern Shore, this is the place to stock up. There are lots of CDs and DVDs too, and — for the retro-minded — boxes of vinyl LPs and VHS tapes.

Still, what tickles me most at the Stone Ridge sale is to wander through the children’s section. There, serious fifth-graders will study the R.L. Stine paperbacks, older sisters will hand younger brothers “The Real Mother Goose” or “The Little Engine That Could” and an enraptured 6-year-old might simply plop down in a corner to read through a stack of picture books — “The Big Orange Splot,” “Dinosaur Bob,” “Miss Nelson is Missing!” For this is, of course, the true grandeur of the Stone Ridge sale: It’s not just for dealers and bibliophiles searching for hundred-dollar first editions priced at a buck, or vintage record collectors hoping to score some forgotten garage-band LP with Bob Dylan on slide harmonica. It’s for ordinary men, women and children who love books. It’s for the entire community of Washington readers.

What I, and most Stone Ridge fans, will miss most about the sale is its wonderful serendipity. Wander among these groaning tables and you’ll see books that you never knew you wanted until just that moment. How about that paperback of Frank Edwards’s “Stranger Than Science” that frightened you half to death when you were 10? Or those cherished issues of Cracked and Mad Magazine that your mother threw away? Or that book of Joan Anglund poems your first boyfriend gave you for your birthday, so long ago, and that somehow went missing after you later mentioned it to your husband? And could that be a Georgette Heyer or an Isaac Asimov that you’ve never read? Surely, that can’t really be the original two-volume Olympia Press edition of Nabokov’s “Lolita”? But it is. At the Stone Ridge Used Book Sale anything might turn up. And usually does.

Stone Ridge book sale

The Stone Ridge book sale takes place at the Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, 9101 Rockville Pike, Bethesda. Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.; Monday, 5 to 8 p.m.

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