Each year, the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library (FSFPL) holds one of the most spectacular book sales any mortal will see in this lifetime: the spectacular Big Book Sale. The 55th annual sale opened to the public on Wednesday, September 18 (running through September 22) at the Fort Mason Center’s 50,000 square-foot Festival Pavilion, with views of the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. It’s a sight to behold. For a book lover, it is an entirely unique and exciting shopping experience. The best analogy one can use is that it is a cross between Costco and Barnes & Noble. In short, it is a book lover’s paradise.
When you first step into the pavilion, you are overwhelmed: row after row of large tables stacked with books as far as the eye can see. According to the FSFPL marketing materials, more than 500,000 items are offered for sale! Books are neatly organized, with their spines facing up, into more than 70 very discrete subject areas (eg, Americana, Ancient History, Anthropology, Antiques, etc.). Beneath each table are boxes filled with surplus books that will be used to replenish the tables. All of this work is done by an army of volunteers (paid by books!) that walk from table to table, tidying up books, replenishing, and helping shoppers find their way around the massive warehouse. Very few shoppers attempt shopping using a bag; most quickly realize the benefits of grabbing a shopping cart from the front of the warehouse and steering it to their favorite sections. Once there, they park it and dive into perusing the titles and start loading their carts as quickly as they can. Books are priced very simply: all hardbacks are $4, paperbacks are $3, children’s books are $2, and media (CDs, DVDs) are $2; on Sunday, all pricing drops to $1 per item. With pricing this low, it doesn’t take long for book lover to calculate the tremendous savings. In a matter of minutes they start loading their carts to the brim. While some shoppers attempt to build tall pyramids of books in their carts; others pursue an easier option and begin to fill a second cart… or a third.
Like in most used book stores, the quality of book ranges from brand new (some still shrink-wrapped) to acceptable or fair condition. Regardless of the condition, the breadth of the selection is incredible. You will find some extremely rare and valuable works that have long been out of print. Some of these are worth hundreds of dollars, and even more surprising, some of these cannot be found on Amazon or ABE Books. And yes, lurking in many of those piles and boxes are several first editions of notable works. One of the most interesting sections on the pavilion floor is the “Unusual & Collectible” section that holds many rare vintage books that are priced much higher than the sale prices to match their value.
Selling donated books is big business for FSFPL. Each year, the organization raises approximately $1.5 million to support the San Francisco Public Library. In fact, they take in so many donations that they run two fully-stocked stores year-round. One of the Friends Bookstore is located at Fort Mason in Building C, while the other is located at the Main Library, 100 Larkin Street. These stores are organized just like any used bookstore and their inventory changes depending on level of donations and sales. Prices at those stores is slightly higher than at the Big Book Sale.
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