Not That Sort of Book Sale: Behind the Scenes at the VNSA in Phoenix

Editor's note: Longtime New Times contributor Robrt Pela is a volunteer with the VNSA and shares his behind-the-scenes experiences with the annual book sale in this essay. 

I’m always forgetting myself and putting an inner apple box where an outer citrus box goes. Or sticking an Isaac Asimov novel in the Fiction section, when it actually should go in Suspense. Or referring to VNSA as “Visiting Nurses,” short for Visiting Nurses Service Auxiliary, which once upon a time is what my charity organization of choice was called.

These days, VNSA stands for Volunteer Nonprofit Service Association and, just as it did back when it stood for something else, it raises money for human service agencies with an annual book sale (arguably the largest in the country) at the state fairgrounds each February. I grew up shopping that sale every year and, after marrying another book collector, joined the gaggle of dealers and crazed antiquarians who line up at 3 in the morning to get first crack at VNSA’s better books. One year, my husband and I were the first two shoppers through the door on Saturday morning. After that, there was nothing left to do but join the organization as one of its volunteers.

VNSA does one thing only, all year long: It prepares for that February book sale. Begun in 1957, the first sale raised about $900; these days, it's more likely to rake in a tidy six figures, all of which is handed over to Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation and Literacy Volunteers of Maricopa County.

Preparing nearly a half-million used books for resale is no mean feat. First of all, we have to get the books, which means coming to your house and picking up boxes of stuff you’ve read and want to unload. It means emptying out our 14 donation boxes and hauling their contents to our secret warehouse location, where we spend a whole year sorting them by subject, pricing them, and boxing them up again. Sorting involves an intricate system of cardboard boxes, all rescued from grocery store produce departments and labeled with the different types of books we sell.

Those boxes are my downfall. “Hey, wrong box!” my friend and VNSA colleague Chris A. barked at me recently during a sorting party, when I replaced an outer apple box with an inner citrus box in the Cookbooks section. (We have more than one Chris, a couple of different Carols, and three different Debbies so, just like in fourth grade, we assign last-name initials to our volunteers. We also have sorting parties. They’re like pizza parties except, instead of eating pizza out of boxes, we put books into them.) Apparently, Cookbooks only ever get sorted into outer apple boxes.

It’s important that each section use the same size boxes, VNSA president Teri Harnisch explained to me once, because same-sized boxes stack better and are less likely to fall over. Outer boxes are the larger top half of a two-part produce box, she pointed out.

“Our Suspense category uses outer apple boxes,” Teri told me, “because traditional-sized hardbound books will fit in a four-book grid with spines to the outer edge and keep the box level over time.”

And citrus boxes? Those, Teri explained, are for volumes that are dense (like dictionaries, and computer reference books) or awkward in variety (like cookbooks). Unversed in theories of box-stacking and four-book grids, I could only smile and nod at Teri’s explanation.
There would be no point in arguing. VNSA rules are iron-clad and well-researched. We might keep only 17 copies of The DaVinci Code, for example, because it’s been determined that this is the number of copies we can sell; additional copies are re-donated to other charities. We may keep for resale no more than five copies of any book with the words “Chicken Soup” in its title, while the still-hot Fifty Shades trilogy has no limits; we’ll keep them all, and likely sell them all, too.

All this sorting and organizing and counting sounds like the nitpicky scheming of a bunch of obsessive-compulsives, but it does have a purpose: to produce a monster of a book sale that raises money for a couple of very good causes. I’ll meet you there, the second weekend of February, where I defy you to find a single ill-stacked apple box.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela