A used book sale in a big tent

Rummaging through stacks of books at used book sales and used book stores is one of my favorite pastimes, and I can trace the origins of those pleasures to the summer after my first year of college, now over 30 years ago.

Upon finishing my freshman year at Valparaiso University, I returned home to nearby Hammond, Indiana, to spend the summer working for a local drug store chain as a stock clerk. Knowing how much I loved to read books, my mom had clipped from the Chicago Tribune a small notice about a big used book sale in Wilmette, Illinois.

I would learn that the book sale was an annual, week-long fundraising event hosted and organized by the Chicagoland chapter of the Brandeis University women’s committee. It was legendary among many bibliophiles across the country, some of whom would rent campers to drive there and load up on good books for the year.

Bags (and bags) of books

I decided it would be worth the 90-minute drive to check it out. When I arrived at the shopping mall listed as the location of the book sale, I could scarcely believe my eyes. The sale — offering some 250,000 used books(!) — was held in a huge tent that covered a big stretch of the parking lot. During the first five days, the books were priced individually, but during the final two days virtually everything that remained was cut to 25 cents or less.

I spent just about every bit of spare change I had to my name. I filled several bags of books at the regular prices, and during one of the close-out days I went back and bought even more.

On the modest bookshelves of my boyhood bedroom, I took great pride in arranging and displaying my new treasures. Though I felt too silly to call it as such, this marked for me the beginning of a personal library.

Bloody politics

At the time, pursuing an academic career was the farthest thing from my mind. Rather, my full intention was to major in political science in college and then go on to law school as a prelude to launching a career in politics. The books I bought at the Brandeis used book sale reflected my intense interest.

Like many a one-time high school student council president, I fancied myself an eventual contender for the real Presidency, and so I loaded up on histories of American presidential campaigns. Chief among these selections was Theodore White’s classic The Making of the President series, leading off with his groundbreaking account of the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon campaign. I remember how delighted I was to assemble the complete series in hard cover for about five bucks. That summer I would devour the books while daydreaming of someday running for office.

Return visits

During college, the book sale became an annual pilgrimage. In fact, until I moved to New York to attend law school, I made return visits every summer.

I recall a trip to the book sale with one of my college buddies. We drove there in his tiny Volkswagen Beetle, and we bought so many books that we had to open the hood and cover the top of the engine with our finds. I have no idea if we risked an engine fire in doing so, but the books made it back to campus safely!

Fast forward

When I was in the market for a condo some eight years ago, the broker I worked with remarked that I was her first client ever to ask about how a given unit would accommodate rows of bookshelves! I can blame the Brandeis used book sale for sending me down that path toward geekdom.

The library I have today is markedly different than the one I started during college. But one bookshelf in my condo contains a row of books about presidential campaigns, including The Making of the President series. My ambitions to run for office faded many years ago, but I’m still something of a political junkie. And while I have no idea whether I will read those books again, they stand as a wonderful reminder of the joys of discovering that huge tent full of used books, waiting to be explored.

-David Yamada


This is the second of an ongoing series of posts on reading and books.

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