A 1933 Wittenberg guidebook, inscribed by the author to "Herr Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler" and bearing Hitler's bookplate inside the front cover. A Renoir drawing. A book by Herbert Hoover on Woodrow Wilson, with a letter from Hoover to the publisher.
Last time, when I arrived at 7:45 a.m. to await the opening of the Vassar Book Sale at 10, there were already 50 people in line. Some were collectors, were dealers, some were bookstore owners, some planned to read the books they bought.
Some had camped overnight on the sidewalk. One camper had little chits with numbers on them, so for the first hundred or so, everbody knew where they were supposed to be in line. I got my chit - No. 51 - and waited. By 9:30 the line stetched back around the block.
Exactly at 10, the doors were thrown open and the crowds poured in, the proprietor of a small but expensive used-book store in Georgetown leading the charge. When the smoke finally cleared I paid $10.52 for 22 hardbacks.
The scene will doubtless be much the when the sale opens next Thursday at the Department of Transportation Building, 400 Seventh St. SW (L'Enfant Plaza Metro station), when 100,000 books will go on sale. They touch all categories, the most numerous being works of fiction, as well as many rare book items, drawings, magazines and records.
The Vassar Book Sale is one of those events you have to plan ahead for or it might slip past you. Its date is flexible; it's usually held in April in a new office building, but the high demand for office space in the District this year delayed it for almost two months.
The combination of selection and price is unbeatable. Hardback fiction sells for 50 cents to $1.50 - and that's about the middle range. In the Rare Book Room, the collectors' items - first editions, illustrated books and antiques - sell higher, but still well below what they would cost from dealers. The real treasures, like the book that belonged to Hitler and the Renoir drawing and so forth, are sold by silent auction.
The whole five-day sale, the biggest project of the Vassar Club of Washington, is, of course, a benefit for Vassar College. Proceeds (over $40,000 last year) go for scholarships for students from this area; currently there are 16 local students supported by the scholarships. All of the sorting and picking up of donated books is done by 50 or 60 members of the organization, which boasts about 400 members.
This year I got to visit the usually sacrosanct sorting center, in the basement of a large apartment building near Connecticut Avenue where it's been for the past two years.
Franny Hale (class of '34) was working the rare-book room. She and a couple of other 20-year veterans - Nell Cooley ('23), Norrie Putzel ('36) - have scholarships named for them, she said. At that moment, Hale was in the process of pricing an illustrated Russian art book, "The Story of Leon Bakst's Life," published in 1922 by the Alexander Kogen Publishing Company. The American edition of 250 numbered copies was carried by Brentano's, and the whole thing was printed in Berlin. Unfortunately, two of the 68 plates were missing and one was loose, but we all thought it was still a nice-looking book and ought to bring in at least $75.
The sorting, said Hale, goes on all year long, but really gets going in the fall. Out in the main secion of the sorting room is where the wheat is separated from the chaff- the rare from the ordinary. "We still miss some things some times," said Hale.
They do, bless their heats. But that's one of the things that makes the Vassar Book Sale so interesting. I wish I could say at this point that I'd found an autographed copy of the original publication of "Ulysses" last year for two bucks. The best I was able to do was an author-signed Atlantic $10,000 prize Novel of 1934: "Dusk at the Grove" by Samuel Rogers. It was 50 cents. But there are many legends of jackpot finds.
Out in the main sorting room a Vassar alumna was just putting the lid on the 95th carton of hardback fiction. Not all the boxes of books are put out at the sale on the first day, she said; they're replenished as the supply dictates. People who know that come back several times throughout the four days, sometimes actually finding more interesting volumes after the first-day rush.
Up on the wall was a magazine price list (American Scholar 30 cents, Horticulture 30 cents . . . ). In the back room were boxes of illustrations. There appeared to be alot of mid-19th-century prints and etchings. In another room were several boxes of records, and stacks and stacks of National Geographics.
In file drawers were hundreds of photographs, including some of past presidents which the sale acquired form Harrison Wing. These sell for 35 cents each.
Jill Nelson ('68) observed that the sale, now in about its 30th year, has more books this year than ever before.
As a final incentive to return visits, all books are half-price on the last day - but, it was generally agreed among the alumnae, by then there's not much left.