Speaking Volumes

It's more than a book sale. The VNSA Book Sale is an annual event a Phoenix tradition that for the past 48 years has drawn collectors from as far away as Manila; one that finds book nuts and savvy dealers lining up for hours at the Arizona State Fairgrounds on the second weekend in February each year. The diehards camp out overnight, anxious to get their mitts on the rarest leather-bounds, to paw through more than 600,000 books in search of literary holy grails. Even dead-mint, signed first editions rarely run more than a buck apiece.

Eager to get the skinny on the country's largest annual book sale, I cornered VNSA chairperson Martha Karlen at Networks, where she spilled about the history of the sale, the occasional bitch fight in the stacks, and that guy in the dorky owl suit.

New Times: About the name of your organization: Visiting Nurses Services Auxiliary . . .

Martha Karlen: We're not the Visiting Nurses Auxiliary anymore. Visiting Nurses was sold to a for-profit organization about 15 years ago, and so the book sale dropped Visiting Nurses as its charity and adopted three new charities: Literacy Volunteers of Arizona, Toby House, and Arizona Friends of Foster Children. We grossed $373,000 in two days for them last year. Anyway, in order to keep our acronym the same, we changed the name to Volunteer Non-Profit Services Association. We don't really go out of our way to explain that, because people just think of us as the Visiting Nurses.

NT: What is a Visiting Nurse?

Karlen: Visiting Nurses predates hospice care. They're nurses who go into homes to help people who need some, but not full-time, professional health care.

NT: Here's my plan: I want to become a volunteer so I can scope out the rarest books and then come back on the first day of the sale and snatch them up.

Karlen: Private collectors are perfectly welcome to join the organization, but volunteers don't have the privilege of helping ourselves. People think we get first dibs on the best stuff, but we don't buy books during the year, and we're only allowed to buy a very, very limited amount of books a couple of days before the sale. And we make sure we don't have any members with a financial interest in a book-selling business.

NT: So you do have bookseller spies in your midst.

Karlen: I suppose there are people who take advantage, but just before the doors open to the public, we go through the building checking for stacks of special books that have been hidden away in odd places.

NT: By your own volunteers!

Karlen: There are probably violations. But I figure anyone who works as hard as our volunteers do isn't doing it to get first dibs on the best books, because it would be a lot more cost- and time-effective to just go out and buy the books for full price somewhere else. These days you can get on eBay and find most any rare book you want.

NT: What impact has eBay had on Visiting Nurses?

Karlen: We have customers who show up with their laptops, and they're looking up the value of books on the Internet while they shop. We have them on cell phones calling dealers to get values before they buy. We encourage this! Because we take books home and look up their value, too. Sometimes we'll find that the most unassuming book is worth four or five hundred dollars.

NT: What do you really think of those of us who get in line at 4 a.m.?

Karlen: We love it!

NT: I know you make fun of us. You think we're all losers, and you have derogatory nicknames for us, like "word nerds" or something.

Karlen: No! We love to talk to the people who camp out overnight, we love the chairs and the sleeping bags. Many people will argue with one another: "I was first in line last year!" "No, last year you were third in line!" Two years ago someone parked their van on McDowell Road at 6 o'clock on Friday night with a sign in the window that said, "I'm first in line this year!"

NT: What's with the guy in the stupid owl suit?

Karlen: Now, now! You'll be glad to know we have an updated owl suit this year. The old one was getting kind of moldy. We always borrowed the owl suit from the zoo, but this year we had one custom-made. It doesn't increase business by 10 cents, but it does break up the monotony to have a man dressed as an owl walking around.

NT: And the announcer with the annoying patter Ron Hoon! Why?

Karlen: He's one of our big supporters. He's opened the sale for five or six years, and he's a big Winston Churchill collector. He always looks for Churchill books.

NT: Okay, give me some book-sale dirt.

Karlen: One year we had a fight break out between two women in the Religion section. They were fighting over a book about the occult. That was cute. But that's what we have security for.

NT: What's the most valuable item you've sold?

Karlen: We had a letter signed by Theodore Roosevelt that just fell out of a book. We had a book signed by both Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. We've had little old-fashioned engineering books that have come in at really high prices. Engineers are big book collectors.

NT: Speaking of things that fall out of books, I feel like I should return to you this recipe for "Mom's Low Fat Salmon Timbales" that I found in a copy of The Egg and I that I bought at your sale last year.

Karlen: You're not shoplifting if you keep those things. We've had $100 bills show up as bookmarks. A year ago one of our members found a book that was actually a safe, and in it she found cash and securities worth $160,000. One of our members is married to an attorney who was able to return the securities and the cash to their rightful owner. And we've had a lot of very interesting photographs come out of books, let me tell you.

NT: Naughty pictures?

Karlen: Well, no. We've had pictures of funerals, though. We try to get those back to the families.

NT: What do you do with porno novels that people donate?

Karlen: We sell them! Yes! I'm a First Amendment type of person, and a book is a book. We do try to keep them out of the reach of kids, though. We also carry Playboy magazine.

NT: What's the book you tend to have the most copies of each year?

Karlen: Reader's Digest Condensed Books breed in our warehouse. They're kindling! We can't begin to use all those. And please we've had so many copies of The Bridges of Madison County it's almost a joke. We get so many copies of Lee Iacocca's biography, I shouldn't tell you this, but I have actually thrown some of them into the Dumpster.

NT: You've thrown away books?

Karlen: I've thrown away copies of that book. This is a major confession, I want you to know.

NT: But books are our friends!

Karlen: Yes, but how many friends do you need named Iacocca?

NT: Who makes your signs? Last year I saw a sign that read, "More Sex Under Table." I think it was referring to marriage manuals.

Karlen: That sign was sort of infamous. In the biography section, we used to have a category called "Tarts and Tramps." Most of us posed for pictures with that sign.

NT: And what about those annoying little stickers that tear the dust jacket when you try to remove them? Who thought those were a good idea?

Karlen: Use a hair dryer to get them off. Put it on medium or low, and point it at the sticker and it'll come right off. I've heard that lighter fluid works, too. But the stickers are just quicker for the people pricing the books.

NT: What about deep, dark secrets of Visiting Nurses?

Karlen: There really aren't any. Although last year a woman came up to one of the co-chairs and said, "I've been all over this building for hours, and I can't find a book that interests me!" People actually ask the workers where a certain book is. "Do you have The Lithuanian Dessert Cookbook?" We don't know if we have that book. And if we do, I promise you, we just don't know where it is.

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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