For the love of the word

Posted on Thursday, October 22, 2009
A dozen strong-armed volunteers of the annual McGill Book fair stand in front of a wall of book boxes - one of hundreds they have constructed over the years. / Photo: Tom Inoue

A dozen strong-armed volunteers of the annual McGill Book fair stand in front of a wall of book boxes - one of hundreds they have constructed over the years. / Photo: Tom Inoue

Book Fair volunteers brave bad backs, paper cuts for annual sale

By Neale McDevitt

They’ve been lifting since February, in preparation for the big day just one week away, repetition after repetition. The team physio ministers to sore backs and aching shoulders that have hoisted thousands of pounds. Regardless, all keep lifting.

The McGill Redmen Powerlifting Team? Not quite. These are the volunteers in charge of the annual McGill Book Fair, to be held at Redpath Hall Oct. 28-29.

“We are all women of a certain age,” laughed Victoria Lees, former Secretary-General of McGill and the organizer of the Book Fair. “Our average age is about 70, although some are in their 80s. This keeps us off the street and out of trouble.”

A staple on the McGill calendar since its inception in 1971, the Book Fair has raised over $1.5 million for scholarships and bursaries for McGill students by selling new and used books, CDs, DVDs and albums donated for the cause. “We’re also very proud of our green function, ” said Lees. “Most of these books would end up in landfills but we keep them in what’s called ‘the first cycle.'”

Lees estimates that she and her team of a dozen or so volunteers process some 120,000 books a year, with 75,000 making it onto the floor of the actual sale itself. That’s a lot of landfill – not to mention the 15,000 plastic bags that are collected and reused each year.

Beginning in February, the team begins the time-consuming task of sorting through and categorizing a veritable mountain range of books that have been dropped off at McGill and other volunteer-run depots across the city. “We don’t sell underlined books or ones that have pages highlighted because we’re trying to reduce quantity and increase quality,” says Anelia Wright, a physiotherapist who tends to her colleagues’ aches and pains when not pricing medical books. “But we give those books away for free to students.”

No genre, except pornography, is off limits at the sale, a two-day festival of the printed word in which Danielle Steele paperbacks share table space with 120-year-old volumes by Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Perhaps the last word on the whole endeavor should belong to volunteer Frances Groen, Director Emeritus of McGill Libraries and a person who knows a thing or two about books. “We need volunteers. But never mind all these wonderful biographies – we need strong people,” she said before switching to a faux Eastern Bloc accent. “Strong like ox.”

McGill Book Fair; Oct. 28-29; Redpath Hall. 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. More information at www.mcgill.ca/bookfair.

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