The Rotary Club’s volunteers are busily putting out thousands of books each day this week, in preparation for the Armidale Book Fair on Saturday when hundreds of eager booklovers will gallop to the racecourse.
“The first morning is like a David Jones sale,” organiser Ian Garske said. “Within ten minutes of opening, we’d have at least 500 people in the racecourse proper, and that continues for four or five hours.”
And that Saturday is only the first in the eight-day fair, which runs from Saturday 19 to Saturday 26 May.
The general public snap up art books (expensive to buy first-hand); history, particularly Australian and military works; hobbies, and cooking. Adventurers go questing for science fiction and fantasy.
Collectors and sellers have their eye on different prizes. From as far away as Ulladulla, they flock to the Book Lover’s Corner, where the most valuable books are displayed for the first three days.
The oldest books date from the 1750s, including the Bishop of Exeter's Enthusiasm of Methodists and Papists Compared (1752), and a 1755 history work.
A 1927 movie album might be worth $100 online. In previous years, a set of first edition Ian Fleming novels, in the distinctive trompe-l'œil jackets, fetched $400.
There are plenty of volumes, too, from the 19th and early 20th centuries, the golden age of literacy when books were published in the tens of thousands.
It’s not just books, though. The fair also sells second-hand DVDs, CDs, LPs (including albums from the ‘70s by the New England Ensemble), games, and puzzles.
The book fair is Rotary’s biggest fundraising event, generating income for charitable works both locally and internationally. It has raised $650,000 over the last 20 years, and $58,500 last year alone.
“It’s more than just a fundraiser for us,” Ian said. “It recycles books, and provides kids’ books in particular very cheaply for the community. We suspect if we weren't running this, a lot of this stuff would end up in landfill.”
Some unsold books are scrapped; mass market paperback copies of Fifty Shades Darker or Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series may end up as cardboard or paper. Nothing gets wasted.
Holding the book fair is a massive undertaking. A dozen Rotary members meet twice a week to sort through the yellow book bin outside the Bookshed in Dumaresq St.
Many have been involved with the book fair since it first began 20 years ago.
“They have an interest in, and a feeling for, books,” librarian and Rotary member Simon McMillan said. “Apart from the charitable outcome, they’re interested in what we see, and in the kind of things that we receive. The range of material is extraordinary, really.”
In normal times, they empty the bin three or four times a week (500 to 1000 books). Now, it’s every day. And they’re still accepting donations.
Some 2000 boxes have been donated, containing 60,000 books. That’s not counting the columns of boxes in the bookshed, which will form the basis for next year's fair – or perhaps for a mid-year book sale.
“As soon as the signs go up around town advertising the book fair,” Simon said, “our donation rates go up immediately, because people want to give to the Armidale book fair. The community just gets so involved.”
Money raised has gone towards school breakfasts, music scholarships and instruments, soup vans, planting trees, and disability workshops in Armidale, and sending local students to science forums in Canberra.
Overseas, Rotary has funded clean water tanks in Myanmar, sanitary items for South African schoolgirls, refurbished the Kokoda Memorial Hospital in Papua New Guinea, and combated malaria.
“The Armidale community - the people who come to the bookfair - are the ones who make it for us,” Simon said. “If they didn't come, it wouldn't be a success.”