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Jack Knox: Volunteers are the (aching) backbone of Times Colonist book sale

There are maybe 400 of them, including a core group of 100 who have been around for the entire process leading up to this weekend’s sale at the Victoria Curling Club.
Volunteers sort through masses of books Monday for this weekend's Times Colonist Book Sale at the ­Victoria Curling Club. Jack Knox checks in with some returning volunteers and others who came to help out for the first time, page A3. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

One year, a woman came to the Times Colonist book sale looking for a needle in a haystack.

Hundreds of thousands of books on display, but she really wanted just one: an impossible-to-find air force history written by her father.

“Do you mean that one?” replied Richard Pope, pointing to a volume on a table of military tomes he had sorted.

“My God, there it is,” the woman said, stunned.

Moments like that are what have kept Pope volunteering at the annual book drive for the past two decades.

For two weeks each spring, he carpools down from Shawnigan Lake with his buddy Tony Cairns, who has been pitching in at the sale even longer. “I missed the first one, but I’ve been here ever since,” Cairns says.

The first one, in case you’re wondering, was in 1998. That was 25 years and more than $6 million ago, with all the money going to literacy on Vancouver Island — and not a penny of it would have been raised were it not for the volunteers who make the charity event tick.

There are maybe 400 of them, including a core group of 100 who have been around for the entire process — the set-up, the drive-through drop-off, the order-out-of-chaos sorting — leading up to this weekend’s sale at the Victoria Curling Club.

Some, like Pope and Cairns, have been coming for decades. Others are brand new to Victoria. A fellow named Justin Aldhouse, fresh in town from Bristol, England, hasn’t lost the smile on his face since showing up at the curling club a week and a half ago.

Working alongside him was Dr. Derek Cooze, a Newfoundland native who spent the past 37 years as a family physician in Tennessee. Cooze and his wife just sold their 20-acre farm down south and moved to Victoria with nothing but three bicycles, two suitcases and a set of golf clubs.

Another newcomer pitching in on each of the past two weekends was 17-year-old Maryna Tsvaygoft, who landed on the Island after escaping the war in Ukraine in July. She was part of a big group of West Shore students, members of Royal Bay Secondary’s book club, who toiled cheerfully and indefatigably even while being worked like rented mules.

Some volunteers have to make a real effort just to get the site. Like Pope and Cairns, Deb Melnyk crests the Malahat, commuting from Chemainus each day.

After a life working in schools, she is passionate about the value of literacy, about saving kids from the devastating consequences of being left behind. On Saturday, she was joined by her daughter Brianne Melnyk, whose culinary arts students at Mill Bay’s Frances Kelsey Secondary baked treats for the weekend sorting crew.

Some make the journey from even farther away. “I come every spring,” says Lynn Carter of Selkirk, Manitoba, who has been travelling to Victoria to work at the book drive for close to a decade. She stays with friends and fellow volunteers Barb and Stan Hulme.

In the past, volunteers have travelled from as far as Ottawa. Many are retired, but others devote their lunch hours or vacation time to standing on the cold, concrete floor of a cavernous curling rink, working for free, subsisting on a diet of coffee, dust mites and the occasional Timbit.

Why go to such lengths to volunteer? Because they love books and value literacy. Or maybe they just enjoy the company of like-minded people, the kind who enjoy building and being part of a community.

Few have a direct connection to the Times Colonist, and most don’t see each other outside the sale period, but when they do get together each spring, it’s like a joyful family reunion. “I’ve got friends I come back and see every year,” Carter says.

The volunteers are, in short, the (aching) backbone of the book sale, which wouldn’t happen without them.

Right, the sale. It’s this weekend, May 6-7, at the Victoria Curling Club, 1952 Quadra St. It goes from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday (that’s two hours longer than last year) and 9 to 5 Sunday.

The books are cheap: $2 for softcovers and children’s books, $3 for hardcovers.

Payment is by cash, debit, MasterCard, Visa or American Express. No cheques, bitcoin or livestock, please.

Pay parking is available in the lot that serves the curling club and Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre. There is also free parking along Quadra, but be aware that parking on some of the nearby side streets is for residents only.

The No. 6 bus goes along Quadra.

Once the sale is over, representatives of schools and non-profit groups may help themselves to the remaining books, for free, from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Monday, May 8.

The money raised at the sale is matched, in part, by provincial government funds via Decoda Literacy Solutions.

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