Once upon a time, in a bricked façade building in Maryland Heights, over 50 volunteers bustled through columns and towers of stacked books, vinyl records, CDs and more. Day after day, they returned.
The result of all that hard work? The Greater St. Louis Book Fair.
For one weekend in May, Queeny Park is transformed into a temporary destination for over 1 million gently used books of all shapes, sizes and genres. The landing of the materials marks the beginning of what many avid readers and book collectors know as the single-largest charity book sale in the entire Midwest.
The Greater St. Louis Book Fair began in 1950 and has since become an annual spring destination for book lovers and collectors. The event takes over one year to prepare.
“People are sorting, pricing and packing. That’s what people are doing right now,” chief volunteer Marilyn Brown said during a recent tour of the Maryland Heights building that serves as the repository of donated books and more.
A history of good works
The Book Fair was founded to further the educational programming of and provide resources to the Nursery Foundation of St. Louis. Although the foundation closed its doors in 2013 after 67 years of service, the Book Fair’s mission to aid local charities lives on. Proceeds go toward local education and literacy programs for under-served individuals across the region – and the event continues to grow.
According to Peggy Kornfein, volunteer and board secretary, the event pulled in over 200 volunteers and led to 13 grants for nonprofits in 2018.
“We get a wide variety of organizations that are all obviously in need,” Kornfein said of grant applicants.
The fair’s outreach covers St. Louis City and the counties of St. Charles, St. Louis, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln and Warren in Missouri; and Madison, St. Clair, Clinton, Monroe and Jersey counties in Illinois.
“The more money we get from the fair, the more money we can redistribute back into the St. Louis area,” Brown said. “All the money stays here in the greater St. Louis area. We get our inventory from here, so we want to keep the money here.”
The grant application process runs annually between September to November. Organizations are vetted to make sure they meet grant qualifications. The application format also helps assure that proceeds are going to organizations on an as-needed basis.
“Everything is done on an application basis, so we really don’t target organizations,” Brown said. “From year-to-year, we sometimes see the same organizations applying, which is fine, and every now and then we get a new one.”
The books and other materials come from individuals, estates, businesses and other organizations.
“People are really very generous,” Kornfein said. “You just really never know what you’re going to find.”
A bounty of great finds
For shoppers and volunteers alike, the experience is a literal treasure hunt.
“It’s like being a kid in a candy store,” volunteer Judy Meyer said. During her year-round volunteering, Meyer said she sometimes sorts over 100 books a day. “You can’t help but gravitate toward these books … I think people who are book people will always love to hold a physical book.”
But it’s not just about the books. Some of the items available for purchase include records, CDs, DVDs, comics and ephemera.
“Vinyl is really popular,” Kornfein said. “People will come in just to buy records. This year, we also have a lot of books on CD. You just never know what you’re going to get, from year to year. What we have to offer is what people donate.”
For those looking for rarer finds, the fair also offers a Collector’s Corner, where hundreds of rare and collectible items are featured. Some examples include first editions, limited editions, out-of-print editions, signed copies and more. Books are priced individually, depending on factors like value and rarity.
“We have everything from signed first editions to books that were printed in the 1870s,” Kornfein said. She also noted that expensive art books are a popular component of the Collector’s Corner. “So, it’s a wide variety.”
According to volunteer co-chair Louise Levine, some of the books date back to the 1700s with valuations up to and over $1,000 despite their much lower Book Fair prices.
Levine pointed out a collection of volumes belonging to the “Flora of China” series published by Missouri Botanical Garden Press with a value of $75 or more per volume.
“We take the time to look up every book,” Levine said. “Some of these books are valuable, and some of them may be older but still look beautiful. You can tell they were loved.”
“I think a lot of people donate these books to us because they know how valuable they are,” Kornfein said. She said they want their books to go to new owners who will love them.
All books available in the Collector’s Corner are listed in advance on stlouisbookfair.org. However, advanced notice on some materials doesn’t stop some hardcore fans from trying to sneak peek at the fair’s set-up each year.
“As we are setting up [at Queeny Park] … people will press their faces against the windows to see what we’re doing and to try to find their areas so they know where to go,” Kornfein said.
The fair’s goal of helping non-profits doesn’t stop with the grant application process. A Book Fair tradition is its annual Non-Profit Day, which this year will be held on Monday, May 6. For a few hours that day, representatives from various charitable organizations and underserved programs are allowed to come in and pull desired materials.
According to Brown, the day brings in shoppers from across Missouri and beyond, including from states like Illinois and Arkansas.
“We’ve had them come from even further away,” Brown said. “When we used to be in West County [Center], some people would come in the night before and sleep in the garage. I’m not kidding. They’d be there at six o’clock in the morning and they’d have their chairs set up waiting for us to open.”
According to Kornfein, entities such as United Service Organizations and the Peace Corps have attended Non-Profit Day to acquire books and library materials for veterans, children and more.
“These people are so grateful,” Brown said. “It really is heartwarming.”
But every day of the fair brings something about which to get excited. Opening day of the weekend-long fair is “just wild,” Brown said.
“If you could see opening day, it’s kind of funny,” Brown said. “At Queeny, there’s a balcony, and if you look up, there are all the employees standing up there and they’re watching, because these people that are coming into the fair will run to get to a certain book. And I mean run … We tell our volunteers, ‘OK, we’re going to be opening in five minutes, get out of the way.’ One person who hadn’t volunteered before was standing next to me one year and asked, ‘Why are they running?’ and I said, ‘Go ask. If you can keep up with them.’”
According to Kornfein, seeing the books find new homes is one of the most exciting parts of the experience.
“By the time we get the books on the table, it’s so rewarding to see that people really, really want them,” Kornfein said.
Any books left at the end of the event are sent to a company that sells them online and returns a percentage back to the Book Fair board for future use. Every year, the end goal is making sure that as many organizations, and books, as possible receive a happily-ever-after ending.
“We try to keep them out of landfills for as long as possible,” Kornfein said. “We try and get every little ounce out of every little book and get them all to a place where they will be loved and used.”
The 2019 Greater St. Louis Book Fair will take place May 2-5 at the Greensfelder Recreation Complex in Queeny Park, 550 Weidman Road in Ballwin. Admission on Thursday, May 2 is $10. Additionally, line bracelets will be sold to the first 200 individuals for $15 on May 2. Admission Friday through Sunday is free. Payment options for admission and all items purchased include cash, check or credit card. Mid Rivers Newsmagazine’s sister publication, West Newsmagazine is an event sponsor. Guests are invited to stop by the paper’s booth on Saturday, May 4 to pick up a copy of its new publication, tour/st, while supplies last. For a schedule, fair map and volunteer opportunities, visit stlouisbookfair.org.