Hundreds of volunteers, from first-time book-haulers to those with decades of experience, came together to bring together the pandemic-delayed Elting Library Fair during the first weekend of October. This was the 64th such fair, but organizers quietly dropped the “annual” since a certain pernicious coronavirus prevented it from happening at all during 2020. Judging by the mood first thing Saturday morning, this event addressed a longing in the community not simply to buy books, but to join together in service of a cause. The sale of books and toys, plants and fair food can bring in as much as $30,000 for library programs, and opening day was full of promise: scores of masked patrons poring over books under tents reconfigured for one-way traffic, a brilliant blue sky overhead and the notes of guitarist Jim Bacon wafting over the book-shoppers, the cider-donut-eaters and the children playing games to win lollipops. This year’s fair was dedicated to Sally Rhoads and Carol Roper, two stalwart library supporters who passed away in 2020, and it seemed that their spirits had blessed the festivities.
Whether this year’s scaled-back event hits historic highs isn’t a question that could be answered by press time, but there was certainly a lot of hands on deck working toward that goal. The library’s new director, Gillian Murphy, discovered that fair planning was well underway when starting in the director’s job, six months ago Friday. It was such a “well-oiled machine” that Murphy felt comfortable focusing on other aspects of the job until a few weeks ago. The effort was initially led by Paul Edlund, a longtime board member who had to cut those efforts short to undergo heart surgery.
Richard Heyl de Ortiz, who stepped up to take over, recalled that Edlund continued to pitch in “until the day before the surgery.” That unplanned transition was one of the ways that the fair was “not according to plan,” but Heyl de Ortiz had nothing but praise for the hardworking volunteers and also the generous fair attendees. Organizers opted to require masks under the tents and during children’s activities due to crowding and made masks available for free. It didn’t appear that anyone was having difficulty complying with that policy. Having to let go of the flea market was saddening, but arrangements were made to host a repair cafe to keep that “reuse” vibe in the house.
Murphy explained that the fair was reduced in size and scope to ensure that it would feel safe and welcoming. The bouncy house was off the table, the number of books was reduced to allow more space in the aisles and the flea market component was shelved for this year. When book donations were accepted again only a few weeks ago, it was only during specific windows of time when volunteers were available. Gone are the days of just borrowing the key to the shed and dropping off donations whenever it’s convenient. What stood out for the new director is the sheer number of volunteers, which Murphy estimated to be in the hundreds. Some were hard at work when Murphy joined the team, but many dozens more show up to help set up and run the event itself.
John Giralico, the recently-retired director who started working at Elting when Nixon was president, seemed to be present everywhere at once in the space, which occupied the entire parking lot and the section of Church Street adjacent. Giralico, who continues to volunteer at the library about three days a week since retiring, slowed down long enough to pose the question, “When did I have time to work?” Even without adding new volunteer commitments, Giralico is busy enough that the idea of being retired hasn’t quite sunk in — except for missing the “public contact” serving as director afforded.
It’s a curious quirk that a book sale can be a major fundraiser for a library; one might assume that people who patronize libraries see no need to buy books, but that’s just not the case. Murphy has observed that even library staff members — with as much access to free books as one can possible get — will peruse the stacks and pick some up for home. While Murphy has personally transitioned to reading digital books, the new director is trying to expand access to both digital and analog books. More than $5,000 has been spent on new digital material in the past six months, and there are also plans to help get more of these donated books out into the community. A network of little free libraries is in the works, and Murphy is considering holding smaller, indoor book sales at other times during the year. Even if that comes to pass, though, it’s unlikely to dampen enthusiasm for browsing the tables of the Elting Library Fair on a warm autumn day.