Saudade for Library Book Sales 


in Books • Illustrated by Esther Lee


In Berlin, Germany, there is no such thing as a library book sale. This is a reality I have had to come to terms with over the past 10 years. A library might have a small bin of sale books near the checkout desk, but certainly nothing compared to the annual tradition at many libraries in the U.S. 

When I lived in Virginia, I looked forward to my local library’s yearly book sale — the weekend when they would thin out the stacks by selling off books that had not been checked out in several years or duplicate copies of bestsellers that were past their prime, like Life of Pi or anything by John Grisham. The great culling. 

For decades, I rarely read books when they first came out — unless it was a book I bought directly from the author at their reading at a bookshop. Books would linger on my “to read” list until I magically happened upon a copy at the library book sale. I considered each a triumph as a hunter of elusive used books. 

With limited funds, I bought new only when I could see my cash going directly to the author or the publisher. I knew that with the alternatives — big-box booksellers or online platforms — the author would see only pennies, if that, from the sale. I was a writer, too, after all. I understood the meager royalties parceled out on an annual basis by presses who fronted all the expenses and desperately needed the small percentage of “profit” from each online sale. 

Buying books at library book sales was how I got all “the rest” of my reading materials. 

But enough of my defense of my thriftiness (as if thrift is something that I should apologize for, but that’s food for another essay). I want to talk now about the experience of attending a library book sale — all its excitement and preparation, the strategies I used, as well as the denouement

The Preparation 

Preparing for a library book sale could take me a week or more. As soon as I knew one was scheduled, I would start my list-refining. I always had a wish list going, even when it had to be typed on a computer and printed out to accompany me on sale day. On this list, I would include all the books I had heard of that I wanted to read but could not afford to buy new (and whose author I did not personally know and, therefore, could not buy directly from the source). 

When the Goodreads app entered the scene, I reveled in its ability to sort alphabetically by author or title, which made my life much easier when attempting to discern whether it was “this book” or another by a similar name that I really wanted to read. A backup print copy of the most desired books was never a bad idea, though, given the poor cell service inside some of the sales. Once, the library set up its book sale in an old parking garage, with multiple levels of tables of books that never would have fit inside the standard activity room of a community library. 

If I drove to the library, I would leave my coat in the car, even in the winter. Loose, light clothing was best. Nothing I did not want to get dusty. And dust there was. I brought several granola bars with me, and sometimes a small bottle of water. I would be there for at least an hour, maybe two, and I did not want to chance getting hangry or dehydrated around so many people. 

So many people. 

A Question of Timing 

Once I had my list and snacks set, I decided on my timing. Of course, my prime strategy was to show up early on the first day and pick up all my most desired books — plus the ones I did not realize I desperately needed. For this, I focused on fiction and poetry. 

Because the sale was so popular, it was important for me to get there for the opening time. To go later in the afternoon would have been to risk not being able to get anywhere close to the tables to view the upright spines of the ordered books. So, I showed up early to stand in the line that would form waiting for the doors to open. The tactical seekers. The cunning. 

The other part of my strategy was to go back on the last day, which was usually when the organizers resorted to the $5-per-bag get-rid-of-everything pricing mode. At first, libraries allowed people to bring their own bag to fill. But, because people are people, some would bring quite enormous bags, and so the book sale organizers began giving people a specific size paper grocery bag at the entrance on that day. That became the standard bag size. 

On bag day, I could pick up any book that looked like an interesting read. I’d go back to the poetry section, then move to fiction again, then browse into biography, cookbooks, art history, gardening, and even into self-help. The wish list didn’t matter here, just whether a book caught my attention or not. On $5-a-bag-day, I judged books by their blurbs, their condition, and — yes — by their cover. 

Not every book at the sale was actually from the library; many were donated specifically for the sale, so those did not have the glued-in checkout card pocket, or the Dewey decimal number taped at the base of their spine. The non-library editions were highly desirable if one was considering re-selling the books. And you could always spot the people there on the first day in the first hour who were picking out books they would resell at their bookshop. 

Which is why I always tried to get ahead of them when browsing the tables. 

Defensive Body Positioning 

Part of the strategy of surviving a library book sale and successfully coming away with a trove of new reads is to understand how to use your body defensively. Like a hockey player carrying the puck. Or a basketball player dribbling down the court. 

I can’t begin to enumerate how many times I was elbowed away from a section by some woman who was scooping up every Barbara Cartland she could get her hands on. If Fabio was on the cover, you could bet someone would hip-check you down the aisle to prevent you from getting to it first. Even if you had absolutely no interest in it. Mystery and crime story lovers were just as bad. Woe betide the person reaching for One Hundred Years of Solitude if it happened to be directly adjacent to something by Sue Grafton or Patricia Cornwell. 

After a few years of just walking away to avoid confrontation, I learned to stand my ground, how to position my body and my already-filling tote bag to keep anyone from edging me aside. If I was working my way from left to right, the tote would be on my left as a buffer. Anyone to the left of the tote could stay there, as I had already looked at those books, but they could not get any closer to me. Left to right was the usual way for people to move, heads angled to more easily read the titles on the spines.  

Don’t get me started on European books and their reversed spine text. They completely throw off effective book browsing. 

While one could adopt a hand-spread tripod stance, defining your browsing space by placing your hands on the table on either side of you, the problem with this is that you eventually must lift your hand to pick up a book. I prefer the tote bag buffer and back block any day. 

There is one other body move — which can be considered defensive or offensive, really — that I’ve employed at library book sales. The Deke. Every sport has its deke moves. In hockey, a puck carrier can throw a false “tell” by dipping their shoulder to throw off the goalie or an oncoming defenseman. You can do this, too, but to throw off that tweed-jacketed professor who’s snatched every Calvino or Duras just as you were about to go for it. 

Chances are he’s been watching you closely to see where you’re browsing. Unless you’ve maintained a strict poker face since you stepped in the door, he’s been observing how your eyes light up every time you’ve spotted a first edition that you want for your shelves. I’ve learned not only to maintain an unreadable poker face, but also to fake out the shopper who’s been following a little too closely at my heels. 

All’s fair in love and book sales. 

The Denouement 

I always considered the period following the book sale to be a sort of denouement, the aftermath following a climactic event. I set each book side-by-side on the carpet. Arranging, rearranging. Touching each cover. Flipping through the pages. It would be another year before the next event.  

I could not just integrate the books unread into my shelves, which were alphabetically ordered by author and separated by genre. I had a special “to read” shelf where these new books would go, and there they went. As I flipped through the pages of the last book to be shelved, a receipt fell out. Nothing special. Just a simple receipt with no store name. A sign of the book’s previous owner and a reminder of the transitoriness of possession. 

The Portuguese word saudade is often referred to as “untranslatable into English,” but it’s meaning refers to a nostalgia for something or someone that is absent that you realize you will never have again. I know that there will be no next sale, and I accept this fact as I accept the sun setting on the final day of a holiday, burnishing the sky.•


Bernadette Geyer is the author of the poetry collection The Scabbard of Her Throat (The Word Works) and editor of My Cruel Invention: A Contemporary Poetry Anthology (Meerkat Press). Her poems have appeared in Barrow Street, Bennington Review, The MacGuffin, and elsewhere. Essays of hers have been published by Oh Reader, the Submittable blog, and Passages North's "Writers on Writing" blog series. Her essay "Leisepark" was recorded and broadcast on Berlin's KCRW radio series.