The Elting Memorial Library’s 60th annual Library Fair is happening this Saturday in New Paltz. It’s a huge milestone; and even though a number of volunteers who have spent decades making it run smoothly each year are still actively involved in the coordinating committee, there’s no one left who remembers exactly whose idea the fair first was. In the late 1950s, before the Mid-Hudson Library System even existed and each community library was entirely on its own, “Other libraries were doing it, so why not?” says Sally Rhoads, who was in charge of organizing the books for sale for an astounding 35 years. She was followed by Ruth Elwell for one year, then another long run from Judi Roehrs and Susan Scher.
According to Elting Library director John Giralico, the first Library Fair was organized because the institution was outgrowing its original building – “It was only the stone house” – and its board at the time recognized a need to expand the space. “Four years later they built the first addition,” he says. Richard Heyl de Ortiz, who last winter stepped down as chair of the library’s Board of Trustees but remains an active volunteer, reminisces about attending the fair in its early days when he was a young boy: “It used to be back in the garden.”
Rhoads first became a Library Fair volunteer in the early 1970s, soon after moving to town when her husband, architectural historian Bill Rhoads, took up a faculty position at SUNY-New Paltz. She recalls buying her first Fair book – a first edition of A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain – out of a tent set up in the Library garden by a man named Frank Hamilton. Old and rare books and special editions are still Sally’s specialty; now that she’s no longer running the Fair, it’s her job to price the volumes that are most likely to attract the attention of dealers and collectors who are willing to fork over ten bucks to get first pick between 8 and 9 a.m.
The rest of us commoners get in for free, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, September 24. “The fact that there’s no entrance fee speaks to the egalitarian nature of libraries,” notes Heyl de Ortiz. “We have an ethos of being open to everyone.” And we need not fear that all the good stuff will already have been sold by the time the gates are opened to all: “We collect books for the fair from April through November,” says Jackie Swartzberg, who has been the official “book lady” for the past three years, collaborating with Susan Scher. “This year we will have more than 10,000 books for sale.”
In 2005, when the library underwent its most recent building expansion, the fair was relocated to the library parking lot on Church Street – a move that Swartzberg characterizes as a “sea-change.” The newly paved space provided a more level surface and more room to spread out, permitting expansion of the fair’s offerings and reorganization of its layout. The array of goodies long ago surpassed tables upon tables of used books; there’s a food tent, flea market items, secondhand jewelry, craft vendors and a huge ongoing raffle with more than 100 prizes, including a weekend for two at the Mohonk Mountain House.
“The children’s tables used to be in the main tent, but the kids were getting run over,” Rhoads recalls. “So about ten years ago we created their own tent.” There are lots of other attractions for the little ones, besides a safer place to browse kids’ books: a used toy table, games with coupons for free books as prizes, face-painting and other activities. Last year there was a bouncy house and slide on Church Street, and older youth volunteers organized a photo booth where kids could dress up in the costumes provided and have their pictures taken as favorite characters from children’s literature. This year, board president Linda Welles and her team of youth volunteers came up with the idea of organizing a scavenger hunt, in which kids will be challenged to hunt down the answers to riddles given them on little slips of paper. Each correct answer yields a free children’s book.
An enormous influx of volunteer assistance from high school and college students with community service requirements to fulfill was made possible in 2014, when the organizers decided to change the timing of the annual fair from July to September, when schools are in session. After the relocation, “Attendance was slipping,” Heyl de Ortiz says. “It was very hot doing it in the parking lot, where there’s no appreciable shade.” Not only is the weather now more likely to be comfortable for outdoor activity, but a September fair also means “a whole labor force that’s not available in July,” says Rhoads. “It’s a real plus to have that kind of help setting up and breaking down.”
Breaking down doesn’t happen until late in the weekend. While all the other hoopla is confined to Saturday, sales of as-yet-unsold books continue from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, September 25. The ones that don’t sell at all don’t get pulped, either: “Several hundred paperbacks” will be donated to prison inmates, according to Swartzberg. All leftover children’s books are given to a not-for-profit organization called Mustard Seed that distributes them to Indian reservations and literacy programs in Appalachia. And the rest of the books are shipped to a company called Better World Books, which this year will send them to English language education programs in Africa.
Three years into the new scheduling, organizers haven’t yet determined the change’s effect on the bottom line of the fair, which is the library’s largest annual fundraising event. Typically it brings in about $30,000, representing about five percent of the annual library budget and the “biggest chunk of non-taxpayer revenue,” according to Heyl de Ortiz. Weather has an impact on turnout, of course, although rainouts have historically been rare. But 60 years in, the organizers aren’t too worried about people not showing up. “People really look forward to this,” says Judi Roehrs. “It’s one event in this community that everybody in the community feels like they can be part of, as a volunteer or a purchaser,” Sally Rhoads agrees.
For more info about the 60th annual Elting Memorial Library Fair, or to purchase raffle tickets, visit www.eltinglibrary.org