Normally this time in November, Judy Sklar would be up early at the Convention Center, helping slash open pallets of shrink-wrapped boxes full of books -- 250,000 books in all -- organizing the restocking room from anatomy to zoology and holding back early buyers camped out overnight for the Davis Memorial Goodwill Used Book Sale.
For 31 years, the Goodwill sale was one of the biggest of its kind on the East Coast. Run by Sklar and staffed almost entirely by volunteers, it raised $339,000 last year alone for Goodwill's programs to train and employ people with disabilities and disadvantages.
But this fall Sklar has new duties. And the used-book sale is no more.
The annual fall book sale was the casualty of changing retail patterns, high costs, old habits and relentless economic realities. When it died, Goodwill lost its single most profitable fund-raising event.
"I do miss it," Sklar said. "We had people who looked forward to it year after year. I get a lot of phone calls about not having it this year, but it was a decision Goodwill had to make. People understand that."
"It was a very tough business decision," said Joe Davis, a spokesman for Goodwill.
The Goodwill sale is the most recent used-book sale fatality in Washington. The Vassar Book Sale, which benefited Vassar College, gave up in 1999 after 51 years. It was done in by the revolution in women's employment that robbed it of its volunteers, high rents for storage, costly advertising, and increasingly heavy expenditures for hauling tons of books to the sale site and worthless donations to the trash.
The Foreign Service annual book sale, run by the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide in the State Department building to support a scholarship program and fund other charitable purposes, remains a successful but increasingly difficult endeavor.
"When the Vassar Book Fair went away, you could have inserted our name in the article about all the different problems they had," said Mette Beecroft, president emeritus of the Foreign Service associates. The sale, which only a few years ago raised about $85,000, now raises $75,000 and faces ever-increasing costs for private guards to handle the crowds in a State Department courtyard.
The cause of death of the Goodwill book sale was slightly different than that of the Vassar sale. It was an innocent victim of Goodwill's struggling thrift stores, according to Davis.
In the 2001 fiscal year, the local Goodwill chapter lost $858,000 on revenue of $21.3 million. The year before, it lost $500,000.
The thrift stores, which once numbered a dozen and ranged from Gaithersburg to Manassas, were convenient places for residents to drop off outgrown clothing, no-longer-needed lamps, baby furniture and appliances.
"We have evolved into a very disposable society. But a lot of people would look at mildewed clothing or computers with cracked screens and say, 'Somebody could use this' and drop it off," Davis said.
It cost more to repair and process many items than customers were willing to pay. "One-third of donations went into the trash at our cost," Davis said.
A decision was made to close all but six of the retail stores, only three of which still accept donations. The loss of the stores meant the loss of a significant proportion of the incoming tide of books.
Then, when Goodwill decided that it would have to sell its large warehouse and headquarters on South Dakota Avenue, it lost its 92,000-square-foot facility where the books were sorted, priced and stored in anticipation of the sale.
Goodwill's decades-old centralized system involved trucking donations from throughout the region to the South Dakota Avenue warehouse, where they were sorted and trucked back to thrift outlets. But rising gasoline prices and an increasing amount of donated junk that had to be hauled away have sent costs skyrocketing.
The growing popularity of consignment shops and estate sales cut into the quality of donations, Goodwill executives say, while discount stores increasingly compete with thrift stores on price.
Last year, Goodwill spent $500,000 to haul away the junk. That is in addition to $1.5 million to truck items from store to store -- and books to the warehouse for storage.
The new system is decentralized. Items donated to the site closest to the District, 10 S. Glebe Rd. in Arlington -- including books -- will be sold at the three remaining stores in Arlington or Falls Church.
"We still get books," said Barbara Wege, chairman of the board, "but we don't have storage or transportation.
"Our primary mission is job training for people with disabilities and disadvantages," Wege added. "It was very painful for us to end the book sale. But we have had to adjust."
Allan Stypeck, president of Second Story Books, said the Goodwill book sale was an annual cultural event for book buyers. As many as 200 to 500 people would be waiting when the doors opened, some of them camping out a day in advance, he said. As the opening approached, he said, "all semblance of the civilized concept of a line would disappear."
One year, he said, an elderly woman on a cane was caught in the opening mob scene, and he offered to escort her to the table she was seeking. When they arrived at the table, he reached for a book.
"She hit me with her cane. 'Young man,' she said, 'I want that book.' "
"That's when I knew in was in the Third Circle of Hell," he said. "People took entire tables of books and moved them into a corner to decide whether they wanted to buy them or not."
The sale, he said, was not the largest on the East Coast, but it was a "player sale." Each sale that is canceled eliminates another opportunity for people who are looking for inexpensive, undervalued books that they can buy without going to an auction or a bookseller, he said. "There is a niche of people who will really miss these sales."
The Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart Book Sale in Bethesda remains one of the largest sales in the area, bringing in $193,000 last year for the Catholic girls school.
In Northern Virginia, the largest sale is the Loudoun Book Sale, which raised $50,000. The Stone Ridge sale is planned for April 11-14 next year, and the Loudoun sale is held in August.