Turn Up The Volumes: 'Big Book Sale' Returns To Fort Mason

Now in its 53rd year, the annual book sale—run by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library—at Fort Mason is an enormous undertaking.

One of the region's largest used book sales, the event will run from September 20th to the 24th, 10am-6pm. There's also a preview sale for library members on September 19th, 4-8pm.

This year, the sale will have double the books in the most popular categories, as well as more CDs, DVDs and vinyl records than in years prior.  The event keeps more than 500 tons of books and material out of landfills every year, and proceeds support the San Francisco Public Library.

Volunteers sort books at the donation center. | Photo: Larissa Runkle/Hoodline

While the sale lasts for five days, preparation is year-long for this gigantic event, the organization's largest each year. More than 500,000 books are first sorted at SFPL's donation center, located at 1630 17th Street (between Wisconsin and Carolina streets) in Dogpatch. 

“We process about three palettes per day,” said Friends' Pricing Specialist David Silberman. With each palette containing 32 boxes, each filled with roughly 25 books, there is a lot of work for a donation team that averages about four staff members at a time.

After an initial sort by volunteers, two of the Friends’ book specialists walk through to check for highly-valued items.

View of the Donation Center from the maze. | Photo: Larissa Runkle/Hoodline

Writer and Friends’ Literary Director Byron Spooner is one such specialist. Scanning the shelves of sorted items, he retrieves high-value books and sends them upstairs to the online sales department, where they will be sold via Amazon, Ebay, or Abebooks.

“It’s impressive when you see books lined up at the big sale, because volunteers hand-sort everything,” said Brenda Salguero, manager of volunteer services. The majority of volunteers are retirees, but Salguero said, “we’re seeing more young people volunteer every year.”

In addition to sorting, there’s also packing, which Salguero calls "a science.”

When books are packed improperly, it can put volunteers at risk, since boxes aren’t as sturdy on the palettes. Walking amidst the maze of boxed books, it’s easy to understand how the sheer weight and size of these palettes could become hazardous.

Bookmarks found in donated items adorn the walls of the Donation Center.  | Photo: Larissa Runkle/Hoodline

With tomes selling at $3 or less, the sale isn’t just one of San Francisco's best bets for cheaply-priced reads. It’s also a trove of rare editions, bookmarks from all over the world, and sometimes even snippets of love letters or fan fiction.

“We find the craziest things in these books,” said Salguero.

Although the staff works to find these rare editions before the day of the sale, inevitably, a few highly-valued treasures always slip through.

“We can always tell when someone has found something,” said Spooner. “Sometimes they’re quiet about it, but other times they’ll come up to us laughing and holding it up.”

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