LENOX — Two mornings a week, nearly 60 volunteers gather in a building at the Conte National Archives off Dan Fox Drive in Pittsfield.

Their summertime mission: To gather, sort, organize into 46 categories and pack prime quality used books, CDs, vinyl records and art works donated all year by at least 500 area residents for one the county's largest, long-running book sales held annually at the Lenox Library.

From its humble origins on a bridge table at the 1995 Lenox Apple Squeeze when it took in $25, soaring to $500 the following year, the sale now offers up to 25,000 items at bargain prices of 50 cents and up, yielding close to $40,000 for the town library, minus about 15 percent for expenses.

Book dealers and scouts for online warehouse sellers make a beeline to the sale during its first three hours, accounting for half of the total proceeds.

The logistically challenging event remains under the watchful eye of its founder, Ilse Browner, who recently celebrated her 91st birthday.

"I want to keep doing this as long as I can," she said. But Browner is delegating more these days, noting that "it's not easy to find a successor, people love to come but it's very hard to find someone to take overall responsibility."

Browner spent 34 years volunteering and then chairing a scholarship book sale in Westchester County, N.Y., her previous home before relocating to Lenox.


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Despite omnipresent electronic devices, she maintains that "there are enough people who love books, and they love bargains. We keep the prices low because our competition is not other sales, it's Amazon."

Sale browsers get a map directing them to children's books, cookbooks, collectibles, biographies, the Berkshires, art, mystery and science fiction, young adult, general fiction and the most popular of the nearly four-dozen categories — Occult & New Age, said Browner. Top-quality, recently published books are given a "Current and Choice" seal of approval.

Admission is free during most of the event, but early arrivals for the "first look" from 11 to 2 on Friday, Aug. 19, get the pick of the litter for a $5 fee. Browner described a "stampede" of eager bibliophiles and book dealers racing to the 80-foot tent outside the library's Welles Gallery.

"It's great fun to be at the opening," she said. "We have crowd control, so the first 10 go in, then the second 10 and so on."

The sale continues until 5, and resumes from 10 to 5 on Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 20 and 21.

Browner maintains quality control, rejecting about 5,000 of the donations "because they're not in top condition, or I know they won't sell, totally uninteresting. I know my customers, they're not going to buy an economics textbook from 1932."

Stephanie Zollshan — The Berkshire Eagle | photos.berkshireeagle.comVolunteer Liam Crook, 8, moves a heavy box of books as he and other volunteers
Stephanie Zollshan — The Berkshire Eagle | photos.berkshireeagle.com Volunteer Liam Crook, 8, moves a heavy box of books as he and other volunteers sort the thousands of donated books, CDs, records and more at the Conte National Archives in Pittsfield. The books are gathered at the archives and moved to the Lenox Public Library for the annual book sale that runs from Aug. 219 to 21 at the library.

Prices range from 50 cents for mass-market paperbacks to the average of $1.50 for hardcovers, though Browner pointed out that "the better books cost more, but they're all bargains."

Maureen Hammel, second-in-command, saluted Browner's expertise. "We've learned a lot from her and she enriched our lives," Hammel said. "She is why we're all still here."

Library Director Amy Lafave called the sale's impact on the library "enormous. We have an army of volunteers who are so devoted, spend so many hours, and what that means to the morale of the place, to know that these folks have our back."

"The book sale is one of the perennial pillars of the library, one of its largest sources of support," said board of trustees Chairman Richard Taylor, who was helping to sort and pack. "Under its redoubtable leader, it has become an important summer community event."

During the rest of the year, a small-scale sale continues at the library's BookNook, directed by volunteer Beverly Hathaway.

Donations are accepted not at the library but at the Conte National Archives site on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 10 to noon, through Aug. 11.

Volunteer Dick Bandes, in his 18th year of book sale duty, explained his devotion to the project: "I'm addicted to books, I like being surrounded by them."

Two weeks after the sale, leftover books deemed worthy of another shot are sorted out and the entire prep process resumes. The off-season site has been at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute on West Street.

However, Browner stressed, "We're always looking for year-round space."

She and her husband, Irwin, moved from Purchase, N.Y., to Lenox and then Pittsfield to be closer to their two daughters and their families.

"That's why I became so attached to the Lenox Library and eager to put my book sale expertise to work for its benefit," Browner explained. "But really, what's life without a weekly dose of books to rummage in?"

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

If you go . . .

What: Lenox Library Book Sale, at least 20,000 items, also including CDs, LPs and art works

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Aug. 19 ($5 donation for first 3 hours); 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Aug. 20 to 21

Where: Lenox Library, Welles Gallery, 18 Main St.

Why: Fundraiser for the library, grossing nearly $40,000 annually.

How: Books can be donated Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon through Aug. 11, at the Conte National Archives, 10 Conte Drive, off Dan Fox Drive west of South Street, Pittsfield

Information: Ilse Browner at 413-445-5679 or ibrowner@roadrunner.com