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Mountain Home Magazine

Under the (Book) Covers

Apr 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Karey Solomon

Anyone would think Nancy Doutt, Anne Foster, and Bev Stevens get together regularly simply because they enjoy one another’s company. They most often meet at the Southeast Steuben County Public Library (300 Nasser Civic Center Plaza), and although lively conversation and laughter punctuate their meetings, their usual agenda is work. They’re Friends of the Library, organizing several well-attended annual book sales, as well as finding non-traditional ways to get books into the hands of eager readers. It all raises tens of thousands of dollars for their beloved library each year.

Nancy, an active nonagenarian, has been involved with the library sales since 1984, chairing many of them. She has records of the events that go back to the group’s first sale in 1958. Back then, hopeful fundraisers brought three card tables of books to Market Street. To their dismay (but perhaps also their delight), they sold out before the sale officially began. Undaunted volunteers sped home to ransack their own bookshelves. That first sale netted $696.56. During the time Nancy’s been involved, she’s seen more than one million dollars raised—$1,281,000 to be precise. After paying for the rented space, advertising, and trucking fees, the group regularly donates $35,000 to $40,000 annually to the library. “We take this sale very seriously,” Nancy says, adding that “Bev is the idea lady.”

Bev, president of the Friends’ board, turns the compliment to Anne, saying, “Her bookmarks and postcards advertising the sale get collected because she makes them so pretty.”

The orchestration for each sale begins almost immediately after the previous sale concludes. The group has several book drop-off sites, including one at the library. There’s a garage attached to the library, and the three bibliophiles gather armloads of recently-donated books and carry them there for sorting.

A series of boxes for sorting fiction genres are spread across a work table—that’s where Bev and Anne begin. Behind them, high open shelving holds categories of nonfiction. Set apart is a huge bin of “maybes.” These aren’t in good condition or they’re unwanted series like encyclopedias, dictionaries, Bibles, and Time Life volumes. Still, “No book gets thrown away!” Nancy insists. This reject bin is her domain.

She carefully inspects each book, setting aside a few for library art projects. A dedicated genealogist, she takes Bibles home, examines the family trees inscribed in many, then tries to reunite them with their families. Several years ago, she found $500 tucked into a grungy book. The money sat unclaimed in the library office for a year, then was added into the library budget. Anne once found a high school diploma in a book.

When the book sorters are done for the day, another volunteer will come to box and label the sorted contents. “It’s a book mountain,” Nancy says, pointing to the ceiling-high collection of hundreds, perhaps thousands of boxes.

Some books, particularly children’s books, are pulled out before the sale to be diverted to “Red Book Shelf” locations—health care facilities, schools, and other public places where children might be waiting, perhaps impatiently, with their parents. These free books are given out to encourage reading. Library volunteers also make “book bundles”—small stacks of beautifully gift-wrapped books, often on a theme like birthdays, mysteries, classic literature, or romance. Holidays like Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day are also honored with wrapped bundles tied with ribbon. The buyer knows the theme but not specifically what’s inside the bundle. What a great gift—the element of surprise for that person who has everything.

“People are delighted,” Nancy says, as her son was when he unwrapped a bundle of plays.

After all the sorting, the books are taken to the sale destination a week in advance, distributed to areas of the space by category, and set out for sale. About a hundred volunteers are involved.

“People know our sale is a good one, and a clean one, where things will be displayed properly,” Nancy says. “Local history is popular, especially if it’s good. Children’s and young adult book areas are very, very busy. We have jigsaw puzzles, cookbooks, crafts, classics. Then we have four tables of higher-priced books, first editions, or special interest books, like out-of-print books. Those will be half of what they’re sold for on eBay. There’s a buyer for every book if it’s priced right.”

When the big sales were suspended during covid, “The pandemic forced us to be creative,” Bev says. There’s always a cart of books and a shelf of puzzles for sale at the library. A volunteer takes a booth at each Farmer’s Market (Riverside Park, every Thursday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. from June through August) to give away books.

“We’re returning the community’s generosity,” Bev explains. GlassFest and several other festivals also see volunteers manning a sale booth from the library. The group also has a second large book sale each autumn. It will be September 21 through 28 in the Union Hall next door to the library.

The spring sale begins Saturday, April 13, at 9 a.m. and runs daily through Saturday, April 20, at the East Corning Fire Hall, 11873 East Corning Road. The first day of this year’s sale is for members of Friends of the Library, but interested non-member buyers can join (it’s just five bucks for an individual, ten for a family), then go inside. At the close of the week, some books are retained for the next event, large print books are sent to area nursing homes, and the residue might go to a wholesaler.

In addition to helping the library, the book sale also funds “Books for Babies,” new children’s books given to new mothers, and “Books Sandwiched In” at the library, a well-attended series in which an expert or celebrity presents a book related to their area of expertise. At a recent program, a curator from the Rockwell Museum talked both about Michael Finkel’s The Art Thief and an actual art thief who wrought havoc at several European museums.

Get sale hours and updates at or call (607) 936-3713, ext. 502.

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