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It’s been an interesting go-round for the 40th annual Book Fair, sponsored by the Friends of the Library, a major fundraiser that helps the Oak Park Public Library afford numerous programs such as the Young Adult Coffeehouse and author readings.

For the past 30 years, the sale has been hosted by Oak Park and River Forest High School in their South Cafeteria. Construction prevented that, so the Friends had to hunt for a new location.

Steve Kirshenbaum, president of the Friends of the Library board, said they inquired about the Linens ‘N’ Things space in the River Forest Town Center and the Aldi’s space at Lake and Humphrey. Community Bank offered a couple of buildings they own (e.g. the former Girl Scout building on Roosevelt), but the only viable proposal came from Oak Park Village Hall, which suggested the ex-Volvo dealership at 260 Madison (between Ridgeland and Lombard, north side of the street).

The site looks decidedly industrial with barrel vault ceilings, skylights covered by chain-link fence, peeling gray paint on the floors, brick walls painted white, signs that read “No Admittance to Shop Area – Insurance Company Regulations,” and a giant worm-like tube twisting overhead.

“That’s for the AC,” Kirshenbaum said. Part of their extra overhead this year. The Friends had to rent a 40-ton compressor unit for the month. On this Thursday evening, however, a cooler one fortunately, the 50 or so volunteers are content with giant fans as they continue sorting thousands of donated books with one week till the sale and counting.

Things cooled off considerably the previous Friday, of course, when the great deluge of 2010 cascaded in through a leaky roof in various spots. Books had to be tossed, but no one will notice a shortage when the Book Fair opens this Friday night, Aug. 6, at 6 p.m.

It might seem a little cramped, though, for the 600-800 people who typically show up on opening night. The Volvo space isn’t quite as large as they had at OPRF, where a small gym adjacent to the cafeteria allowed for overflow and the high school’s lobby provided ample room for cashier stations.

But for the time being, this space can more properly be described as a month-long community of book lovers, who show up informally from 1 to 4 p.m. each afternoon and 7 to 9 p.m. each night to sort the estimated 100,000 book donations into their proper categories.

Paul Koko, who coordinates the night sorters, brings his boombox and fills the space with classical music. Not surprisingly, the greatest treasure he ever came across was a three-volume World Encyclopedia of Recorded Music by Cummings & Clough.

He’s been coordinating for 25 years and sorting for 35. It all goes back to the early 1970s when he was riding his bike past Scoville Park one day and spotted the large tent set up outside. He filled up both bike baskets with books, had to walk it home because it was so heavy. Then he rode back for more. The fair moved around from park to church parking lots for a few years before settling in at the high school.

“I love it,” he says of the annual sorting marathon. “It’s the thrill of discovery.” Two nights ago, he recalls, one sorter came across a signed second edition of A is for Alibi, the first in Sue Grafton’s series of “alphabet mysteries.”

“If it had been a first edition, it would have been worth about $8,000,” he notes.

Paul’s wife, Pat, the former director of the Senior Citizens Center, oversees the Hobbies and How-to table.

“That’s not ‘how to change your life,'” she notes. “It’s how to make things.” Working with seniors made her something of an expert in arts and crafts.

Among the practical titles that caught her eye: A “Kitchen Wisdom” series book titled, Grandmother’s Critter Ridder, which is packed with non-toxic, natural methods for getting rid of unwanted critters; The Naked Roommate and 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into In College; and Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time.

A number of kids roam the facility, including Ellie Vanderwell, a precocious 13-year-old, who is filming the proceedings. She did it last year and it was a big hit with the volunteers. “Now everyone’s expecting it,” she says.

Ellie also does a little sorting, but “I don’t really know what categories to put them in. I’m not that talented.”

One of her buddies is Alex Reed Tarnowski, whose parents, Chet and Barbara, met while sorting over a decade ago. Actually, they met at the “pre-sorting pizza party” for volunteers (there’s also a chocolate party the night before the fair and a post-fair pizza party at the library in September). They’ve been married for 10 years.

“We’ve been sorting ever since,” Chet says, matrimonially speaking.

He and Barbara are avid readers, though their tastes couldn’t be more different.

“I love twisted murder mysteries – and Jane Austen,” says Barbara. “Chet is trying to make his way through all the Penguin Classics.”

Both, however, enjoyed the somewhat obscure Wilkie Collins mystery, The Moonstone, which they found at a past book fair. You never know what you’ll find as you sort.

“I just came across Astronomy for Dogs,” Barbara says.

“We spend $40-$60 here every year,” Chet notes. “That gets you a lot of books.”

Being a volunteer also gets you first crack at the titles, though they have to abide by the daily limit. The collectibles and autographed copies, however, are reserved for the dealers and serious book lovers who pay a $5 admission fee on Friday to get a leg up.

“I call it ‘The Running of the Books,'” says longtime volunteer Janet Scodius. “It’s my favorite part.”

When the doors open, people don’t just run, she says, they leap over things, carrying their post office crates with them. The past two years, she says, the Math and Science table was the first place they stopped.

Valerie Medina, a former professional dancer, is the volunteer coordinator this year, the only paid staff member.

“It’s a lot of fun,” she says, holding a water-warped copy of You Suck by Christopher Moore. She shrugs off the flood. “The show must go on,” she says. Book hunters will be relieved to hear they have several more copies of You Suck.

“Books are a treasure,” says 25-year sorter Rich Adamczewski, whose kids, ranging in age from 20 to 28, basically “grew up here.” When he was growing up, his mom worked nights, so she would bring them to the library to pick out books, and they would read during the day while she slept.

“Nope,” he says. “Book club.”

The library takes donations throughout the year, so the sorters started “with three mountains of boxes filled with books,” Adamczewski says. “Three weeks later they’re all sorted. It amazes me.”


Photos by JASON GEIL/Staff Photographer | Click here to buy one of these photos and see more in our photo store.

40th Annual Book Fair

  • Friday, 6 p.m. Admission $5
  • Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free.
  • 260 Madison St.(the old Volvo dealership)
  • Hardcover books $2
  • Trade paperbacks $1
  • Mass market paperbacks 50 cents

This article has been updated to correct the dates of the Book Fair.

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