Prologue or epilogue: What’s next for the McGill Book Fair

Undeterred by a recent history rife with alternating closures and revivals, the McGill Book Fair opened its doors again for a three-day sale Oct. 29 – 31. Nearing its 50th anniversary, the fair sells tens of thousands of gently used books—ranging in genre from biographies to romance novels—along with an assortment of CDs, DVDs, vinyls, and sheet music. While book prices remain affordable at an average of $3 per book, the fair has raised a total of nearly $2 million for student scholarships and bursaries since 1975.

Created by the now-disbanded Women’s Associates of McGill in partnership with the McGill Women’s Alumnae Association in 1971, the event is entirely run by volunteers. Alumni Anne Johnston Williams and Susan Smith Woodruff have been co-coordinators for the past five years. With approximately 50,000 books sold annually, Woodruff estimates that about 65 per cent of all their supplies were sold this year.

“We had 802 boxes [of books], in 36 different genres,” Woodruff said. 

The fair has faced issues over the past decade. Operating with few volunteers, problems such as a lack of viable ways to transport books to campus are difficult to overcome. After expecting to close in 2011 due to the event’s physical toll felt by the few remaining volunteers, the fair was revived by students in 2012. Despite this new leadership, it experienced a hiatus in 2013 due to the construction on Redpath Terrace. The fair continued in 2014 with Willams and Woodruff taking over, but saw low turn-out due to a lack of advertising. In 2018, construction in Redpath Hall seemed to signal the permanent end of the fair. After marketing last year as the fair’s final run, they received new information from the administration.

“We really shocked people last year when we said we weren’t coming back,” Williams said. “We all said our goodbyes. [Then, the day after the fair], someone from [McGill] administration called to say there is no reason [that] you can’t have the Book Fair next year.”

This year, organizers continued to experience challenges that hindered efficiency when organizing the fair.

“As frequently happens, there [was] complication, personal changes and miscommunication,” Williams said. “When we came on Friday [to set up] of last week, there was still construction [equipment in the downstairs section].”

A total of 28 volunteers dubbed, ‘Book Fair-ies’, are tasked with administration duties year-round, while 75 others help during the fair itself. Suzie Slavin has been a volunteer  for over 12 years since her retirement as a librarian. As an avid book lover, Slavin explained the difficulties involved with running the fair. 

“It’s hard to get enough people,” Slavin said. “We work from February or March until [October], collecting books from people [and getting them] downtown. There are a lot of logistical issues. We do pricing and triage, [and other] preparatory work. And we communicate with the coordinators.”

Sustainability has always been a priority for the fair. Unsold books are given to local charity Renaissance, where donated goods are sold at accessible prices, and profits reinvested into the community.  Other organizations, like Books 2 Prisoners, purchase leftover materials. 

“We recycle and reuse [everything],” Woodruff said. “We’ve always shared as much as we can.” 

Woodruff and Williams are grateful for the work volunteers put into the fair, who work for months to collect, organize, price, and move countless boxes of donations. 

“We’ve had really great support from many, many people,” Williams said. “They have been phenomenal to us.”

After assuming the role of co-coordinators for five years, Woodruff and Williams are looking to pass on the torch. Currently, they are in the process of looking for a replacement coordinator, but have so far been unsuccessful.  

The revival of McGill’s book fair is part of a global trend: Data suggests that book sales have been on the rise since 2013. The Book Fair plays into this trend by repurposing old books that would have otherwise been forgotten or thrown out and giving them a second home with new readers. 

“The value of books waxes and wanes, and I think it’s the wax again, or so I hope,” Slavin said. “It’s important to bring old stuff to the attention of young readers.”

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