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Jack Knox: $2,000 treasures to hidden weed — 25 years of book sale memories

Times Colonist Book Sale, raising money for literacy programs, being held Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Victoria Curling Club, 1952 Quadra St.
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Volunteers sort books for this weekend's Times Colonist Book Sale at the Victoria Curling Club on Quadra Street. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

It’s the 25th Times Colonist Book Sale this weekend. Let’s take a trip down memory lane.

• The first sale was in 1998, the newspaper’s response to reporter Susan Danard’s ­stories on funding cuts to school libraries.

Organizers had no idea how many books would be donated. “We can store them in my office,” the editor suggested beforehand. His office was 120 square feet, which turned out to be several thousand square feet less than needed.

Readers overwhelmed us with a mountain of books, which we piled in the vacant top floor of the old Times Colonist building in the faint hope that someone would sort them. “Someone” turned out to be dozens of volunteers, many of them former teachers and librarians. I was always afraid they would correct my grammar, so never spoke in their presence. They thought me a mute, and treated me kindly.

That sale brought in $20,800.

• In 1999, hundreds of the donated books were diverted to the tiny Yukon town of Watson Lake after its library burned down.

• In 2000, members of Canada’s men’s under-23 rugby team volunteered at the book drop-off. At one point, they stripped off their shirts and held a chin-up contest on the Times Colonist loading dock, prompting one of the women in the newsroom to ask: “Can I take one home, just to play with?” No, she was told, you may not.

• In 2001, I wrote a column about mystery items — photos, love letters, money — found within donated books. Illustrating the piece was one of the photos, a picture of a pensive teenager, over the caption “Who’s this girl?” Hence the shock when reader Bridget Ducker picked her newspaper off the porch at crack-of-dawn o’clock and found her 1974 self staring back from the front page. Her cry of alarm brought husband John Ducker — then a Victoria police inspector, now the TC’s driving columnist — scrambling out of bed. The photo turned out to be one he had taken when they were dating.

• In 2002, prices were set at $1 for children’s books and pocketbooks, $2 for softcovers, $3 for hardcovers. They haven’t been raised since. If we were in charge, the average Victoria home would still cost $280,000.

• Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: The Calgary Herald launched a charity book sale in 2003. Other Canadian newspapers followed suit.

• The crowd at the 2004 sale included the World’s Oldest Kleptomaniac, a shoplifter who showed up each year (really, he was punctual as a French railroad) and whose trench coat was so laden with stolen books that we had to give him a little nudge to help him out the door.

• At the 2005 sale, Senator Pat Carney found a signed copy of her memoir Trade Secrets. It had been signed by someone else.

• In 2006, B.C. Ferries carried hundreds of free books to the community centre in Hartley Bay, the remote community whose brave residents boated to the rescue in the middle of the night when the ferry Queen of the North sank.

• In 2007, while doing my best to avoid the heavy lifting at the book drop-off, I noticed a young woman hoisting boxes big enough to make a journalist swoon. “Strong girl,” I thought. “Why is she limping?” The volunteer was swimmer Stephanie Dixon, who was born without a right leg, and who won 19 paralympic medals for Canada.

• 2008 was the year we found the ashes of a dead cat in one of the boxes of books. Toonces arrived in a grapefruit-sized ceramic cremation urn, wrapped in gauze and tied with a pink ribbon. Other weirdities inadvertently donated: an FBI fingerprint field kit, brass knuckles, a gold-painted plaster eagle, dentures, weed in a hollowed-out book, a surprising number of undergarments and, this year, our second case of wine.

The cat urn floated around the Times Colonist newsroom for a dozen years, as no one wanted to throw it out lest doing so trigger some Poltergeist/Pet Sematary reaction. The wine won’t last that long.

• In 2009, the TC’s Dave Obee tried watering the cat ashes to bring them back to life. We think he confused them with sea monkeys.

• In 2010, after years of vagabonding around empty buildings — the old Bay, the former Brick on Quadra Street, the NOW furniture store on Douglas — the book sale landed at its current home, the Victoria Curling Club. The ice goes out at the end of curling season and the books go in. Awesome.

• 2011’s most ironic title: A Tribute to the Martyred Leader of Non-Violence Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., written by the murderous Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier in 1968.

• Buried treasures remain right to the end. In 2012, Oak Bay High teacher-librarian Joyce Moreau patiently combed through unsold books until she found 60 hardcovers (a couple of classrooms worth) of The Da Vinci Code. Bought new, the books she took away would have cost $2,480. A reminder that teachers and charities can haul away leftover books for free on the Monday after the sale.

• Popular titles arrive in waves that reflect their popularity in previous years. Among the most donated books of 2013 was 50 Shades of Grey. In 2012, it was the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. Before that, it was Eat, Pray, Love (though not, alas, the hunter’s equivalent: Eat Prey, Love), a million copies of the aforementioned Da Vinci Code, a billion Harry Potters, the Atkins Diet book (good riddance) and, at the first sale back in 1998, Future Shock. Judging by the condition of the books, nobody had read more than 30 pages into Future Shock before giving up, whereas copies of 50 Shades arrived dog-eared from beginning to end.

• In 2014, the first couple in line for the sale arrived at 11:55 p.m., more than nine hours before the doors opened. “There are some interesting people on Quadra Street after midnight,” one said.

• Among 2015’s donations: an 1894 first edition of Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins, valued at $2,000. Sometimes people knowingly give up valuable books; a teacher donated a 200-year-old, VCR-sized Bible even though she knew it was worth hundreds of dollars. “I believe in literacy,” she said.

Similarly, a buyer who paid $3 for an atlas returned with a $100 donation after discovering how valuable it was. You have to love readers. Have to love Victorians.

• Talk about donor’s remorse: At the 2016 drive-through collection, someone dropped off a purple Prince in Hawaii gift box (hardcover book, T-shirt, incense and other paraphernalia). Four days later, the musician died. The donor got the box back, responding with a nice cash contribution to the sale.

• In 2017, one couple donated 60 cartons of cookbooks. That reminded me of volunteer Joy Littler’s theory: “The dirtiest pages always have the best recipes.”

• In 2018, volunteer Jeff Moore stumbled across a yellowed letter from a heartbroken widower to his son. Preserved inside a falling-apart copy of Marie Corelli’s 1889 novel Ardath: The Story of a Dead Self, it began “My Dear Alexander, Thou art the first offspring of thy much loved Mother, who is now, and was, the object of my soul’s adoration: Hallowed! be the ground! she now slumbers in! Oh, how we did, in the beautiful past, mingle purest thoughts, aspirations, hopes and prayer; our hearts being touched with tenderest love, humility, contentment and trustful faith. …”

It went on like that for three grief-stricken pages, at one point mentioning how the writer’s lost wife would, when coming to the musical “amen” at the end of a prayer, repeat it. “Now when I come to that last word, I tarry, in vain, for the sweet pure echo.”

Take a minute to think about that — the antiquated language, the tortured, unfiltered sorrow — and then think of what the modern equivalent would be: A text with three crying emojis.

• In 2019, slipping out from under the covers (as it were) were photos of a naked couple. Some things cannot be unseen.

• The pandemic scuttled the 2020 and 2021 sales. Instead, scaled-down drive-through drop-offs saw donated books sold to Russell Books, which did all the sorting, stored what was in good enough condition to sell and paid to dispose of the rest. Those efforts, along with provincial government funding via longtime supporter Decoda Literacy Solutions, went a long way to allowing the Times Colonist Literacy Society to distribute $270,000 in grants to a record 214 recipients, mostly schools, this spring.

Given the lack of a book sale, it felt like the Miracle of Dunkirk. It also brought the 25-year total to just over $6 million. Well done to all who have made it happen.

The sale is 9-5 Saturday and Sunday at the Victoria Curling Club, 1952 Quadra St.

jknox@timescolonist.com