There are two major book sales in the San Francisco Bay Area that feature really affordable books. Both are in the early spring and we hit them running, or in the case of our advanced ages, walking slowly. Standing in line for several hours has never been my favorite thing, but sometimes it is worth it and sometimes it isn’t. At both sales we were blessed with perfect Bay Area weather – cool, sunny and somewhat breezy. We have a place to stay nearby that is sort of reasonable for that area and we just stay one night as we live about three hours away.
Our first trek was in early February when we went to the Oakland Art Museum’s Annual White Elephant Sale (WES). The location was the warehouse district in southwest Oakland, across the channel from Alameda Island. The building was big enough to house a whole herd of white elephants and it was packed to the gills. It isn’t just books, good grief, no; it is just about everything that anyone could name from Antiques to stuffed Zebras. There is an annual sale in Portland, Oregon that we used to go to every year and we thought that was a biggie, but this was probably twice that size. Last year (2014) we went to the regular White elephant sale on the first day, but this year we were invited to the preview sale, a week before the first regular sale day. So now we’ve done both and my vote goes to the regular sale. The reasons are simple. Everyone who ever bought a book is in line for the preview from about 7 a.m. on, bringing chairs, blankets and coffee or buying same from the enterprising street vendors who set up coffee, donut, and breakfast burrito stands. Warning, however, parking stinks. There is a tiny parking lot, maybe 40 cars - it is a gentrified warehouse area so there are a lot of residential apartment buildings. The sale is on Sunday, so the folks who live in the neighborhood are home and still asleep and so are their cars. If you really aren’t early or you don’t have a handicapped sticker for your car, you may walk a long, long way to stand in a long, long line for a long, long time.
My major complaint about Oakland, besides the parking, is that we never got time to rummage through all of the books or any of the other goodies. We were pretty exhausted by the time we spent four hours walking on concrete floors, elbowing through the crowds and dragging around boxes and bags of books. If you want to put books on hold until you are finished shopping, you have to walk the equivalent of about a half block to the hold counter, drop off your boxes or bags, and then walk back to the book section.
For the regular Elephant sale, we got our passes a month or two in advance for $15.00 each, so once the doors opened we walked right in and started buying. And no, all the good stuff doesn’t get taken out with the preview sale because they restock after the preview and one of the volunteers told me that they save back some of the best for the regular sale, which lasts all month. She said that they restock almost every day. They are amazingly organized and every volunteer we had anything to do with was pleasant and friendly and very helpful. Of course, we are getting older (young people call us “honey” and “sweetie” now -- gag me!) but at least they have big carts and big guys to push them at the Oakland sale. However, they don’t allow you to use a rolling cart of your own because the place is so dense-packed that toes would be crushed and a traffic jam the like of the L.A. Freeway would ensue. However, they do discourage young children, which I found a great relief. Not only does it cut down on the noise level, but you don’t have many tiny tots with sticky fingers zipping around and getting into things.
We bought about six grocery-size bags and two or three boxes of books. A lot of the books were paperbacks – hard to find counter culture prose, mysteries and sci-fi for the store – but we also found a few really nice books for our online store. I got several books for each of our specialties; sailing and nautical, magic and occult, the Wild West, and ethnic cooking. The Elephant’s antiquarian selection was quite good, but most were not in a genre that we stock. Since our Grass Valley bookstore is a co-operative, many of the other members specialize as well, and we don’t shop for each other. Once bagged and paid for, a very helpful gentleman pushed our cart to the loading dock and helped us load up our Chevy Tahoe near to bursting. Off we went to great Thai food at Toomie’s in Alameda, then home to Grass Valley to unload, admire, sort, and price our booty.
In late March, as members of the San Francisco Friends of the Public Library, we were invited to their preview spring book sale. It was held next door to the Friends’ Fort Mason store right on the waterfront. At this sale, there was a lot of parking and, in fact, we only got there an hour and a half early and got a place to park within 100 feet of the end of the line. Yay! Within a half hour of our arrival, though, the line tripled. We were lucky.
In San Francisco, you can bring your own rolling cart or they have supermarket type baskets which you can fill up in no time at all. They have no Antiques or Zebras there, they only have books, media, and ephemera, and though it is dense-packed, there is enough room to have 2-3 carts to an isle. However, they unfortunately do allow children, and there were a number of them running around, including a couple of screamers. They also have a free hors d’ouevre buffet and wine or sodas, but why waste time eating when one can be shopping for books! Time for some of San Francisco’s great food later.
Comparing the books that they had at each place for sale, we have to give it to Oakland. Their “better” or collectible books were less pricey and there was a much better selection. There were fewer collectible books at the San Francisco sale and they were pretty much overpriced for resale in our part of the country. I believe most of their collectibles are listed online instead. I did find one first, signed sci-fi by Neil Gaiman that was quite reasonable. Their general selection of non-collectible books was, to our way of thinking, of a lower quality than the Oakland Museum books, and of course the best of these were ex-library with the attendant deprivations. In Oakland, the books were neatly lined up on bookshelves. In San Francisco, they were spine up on tables. They tend to get badly abused on tables and many slid off onto the floor and made for messy perambulating around the piles. Also some of the tables were so messy, that they were nearly impossible to find anything on. This can be, in part, blamed on the “Scanner People” who grab, scan, and toss without regard or respect for the books or anyone else. Again, we bought several bags of good books for our brick and mortar store, mostly sci-fi and fantasy, but not too many for my online store. I should explain that because there are so many $.01 to $2.00 books online, I don’t waste my time putting those kinds of common books online. I generally only list my more upscale, scarce and rare books, and the rest are in our Grass Valley store.
All in all, I’m still scratching my head to decide whether either or both of these sales are worth the drive, the overnight motel room, the food, and the gas. It is worth it for them, however. Stunningly, Oakland raised more than $2 million this year for the museum. San Francisco FOL made $197,000 just on books for the Friends. All that with just volunteers; what a fantastic job all those volunteers did. I’m sure they were all thoroughly pooped when it was over. Thanks all of you, we love the Bay Area and if it weren’t for earthquakes and overpopulation, we’d probably live there.
To sum up, selection, at least in San Francisco, was not quite worth the effort this year. Maybe it will be better next year. Oakland? Well, we will surely do that, at least for another year or two, and next year we will make sure and set aside some time to wander around and see what other amazing things they have for sale. I recommend you check out both of their websites if you are interested in going to their sales or want more info; www.whiteelephantsale.org for Oakland, www.friendssfpl.org for San Francisco. Maybe we’ll see you there. Cheerio!