New York Library Association. - The eBulletin

History of the Book Sale From 1946-2013

By: Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library


Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library was formed in 1946. The first Book Sale was one year later, and was initially held at the library, making $461.25 with $2.94 in expenses. After many years at the library the sale moved from one empty building in downtown Ithaca to another. Tables, boxes of books, and shelving were stored during non-sale times in volunteers’ basements and garages.


In 1974 life changed when the Friends’ Board decided to sign a five year lease on  space in the Old Ithaca Calendar Clock building. The lease was renewed three times, each time adding more space with an increased rent. Eventually the Sale occupied 10,000 square feet. Book drop boxes were placed at the library and at the Book Sale site. The Book Sale was held yearly in October with sorting done in May and September. A small magazine sale was held in May. Sorting lasted two months, and now year round.

By 1983 the sale was ten consecutive days long. By the early 1990’s the sale ran ten consecutive days, closed for four days, and reopened for three days. Now the Sale runs three Saturday-Sunday-Monday long weekends in the Spring and Fall. The last day is Bag Day on Tuesday. This schedule was chosen after looking at attendance numbers.

Bibliophiles line up Friday night before opening, and people come from as far away as the west coast. Weddings have been planned to coincide with the Book Sale. Visitation grew from 9,000 to as many as 21,000 visits during a sale.

Sorting books makes a big difference to customers, who find what they want more easily. From the small sale in the library in 1946 to today, the

Old Book Sale Site

number of volumes has increased to more than 250,000 items each sale in recent years. Approximately 300 volunteers donate between a few hours to hundreds of hours annually. More than 20,000 hours are volunteered.

After each sale the Friends empty the building of books and start anew. The question has been asked, “Why don’t you keep the books?” The answer is that the book did not sell for 10¢ or a buck a bag. If we kept all the leftover books, the shelves would be crowded with books no one wanted to buy. Since Ithaca is the home of Cornell University and Ithaca College, books are plentiful.

During the 1980s the Friends began to look for a site to purchase and saved money to buy.


In August 1991 the Friends’ President received a call from an owner of a warehouse in downtown Ithaca who had heard the Book Sale was looking for a new home. He thought his site would work well for the Book Sale. He wanted to rent the building. He was asked if he would sell the building. His response was, “I will let you know on Monday when you see the building.”

Book Sale Site Today

Walking into the spacious warehouse on Esty Street, it was obvious that if the Friends did not buy this building, they were not serious about buying. All the other sites that had been explored needed walls torn down, were too small, were too far from the center of town, or had no parking. This site was in a perfect location, with 10,996 square feet. It has two bathrooms, hot water, an office area, and radiant heat.  

The Friends’ five-year lease at the Old Ithaca Calendar Clock space was ending December 31, 1991. In August of 1991 the Friends’ Board toured the building and within a month voted to buy it. Plans were set out for the move. The first job was to take down all the shelving and lighting in the Friends’ home of 15 years. It was a massive effort done by the Friends’ volunteer laborers, wielding hammers and screw drivers.


On December 7, 1991 the first loads were delivered to the new site. For the next two weekends a truck traveled back and forth from the Calendar Clock Factory to Esty Street, 0.7 mile.  

The previous owner, an architect, advised the Friends on shelving layout. He was shown three plans. He pointed at each and said “no”, “no”, and “yes”. He explained that we wanted this lay out like a grocery store because we want to move people. With this in mind cookbooks, gardening, and other fast selling categories were put in the back, like milk and eggs in a grocery store.

With the help of the Probation Department, a local BOCES  class, and volunteers, stairs were added to a loft previously accessible only by a ladder. Walls were added to make a Specials Room, and lots of shelves. Carpentry skills were learned by many. Contractors were hired for the electrical work and to fill in the loading docks, and to install clear panels in the walls to allow natural light. Plumbers worked on the sprinkler system. A drop slot was installed into the front of the new building, and a volunteer came each day year round to empty the slot.
A local contractor and volunteer heard the plans that the Friends would be up and running for the October Sale. He told another volunteer in confidence, they would not be able to do this if they had hired contractors to do the entire project. Later he came back and said, “If you had hired contractors to do this, you would never have been ready in October.”

In April of 1992, five months after the move, the Friends held an open house to introduce the community to their new site. In May there was a paperback sale. In October they had a great fall sale with a 20 per cent increase in revenue.

For the first October sale, three volunteers stayed in the building overnight. At 11pm a volunteer opened the front door to see if anyone was there, and she found about 20 people in line. She said, “We didn’t know if you would come,” and one man explained,  “You cannot hide from us!”

During the 1990s the Book Sale became computerized and developed a web site. When the Book Sale Chairman told the Treasurer that it would cost at least $50 to register a domain name, the Treasurer balked at the cost but relented. The web site is  And so began our life at Esty Street.

Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library has donated more than $4,500,000 to the Library.  Additional grants have also been given to the Finger Lakes Library System, community and grants, and money to many small libraries in the Finger Lakes System. Today the Book Sale faces more competition online. With the Kindle, Nook, iPad, and other devices many people have abandoned the printed form of books. Sales may decrease and life at the Book Sale will change.

Click here to learn tips on how to make your book sale grow.