Jack Knox: Dr. Schweitzer, meet the Times Colonist Book Sale’s paragons of selflessness

Book Drive logo - undatedIt was Rhonda Ganz who found the picture of Dr. Albert Schweitzer. The black and white image — two women flanking an old man with a big moustache and a pith helmet — was tucked inside a slim volume of Schweitzer’s writings that somebody had donated to the Times Colonist Book Sale.

“I thought it was just a photo at first,” said Ganz, one of the volunteers sorting books for this weekend’s sale.

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Then she saw what was written on the back, in cursive: “My daughter and I with my father in one of the last photographs taken of him.”

Yes, Ganz was holding what appeared to be a photo — or, by the looks of it, a picture of a picture from a book or magazine — of the legendary humanitarian, his daughter Rhena Schweitzer Miller and one of her three daughters. It might have been taken at the hospital he founded in what was then French Equatorial Africa.

The question, 10 years after Miller’s death in California and more than half a century after the demise of her Nobel Peace Prize-winning father, is whether that’s really her handwriting on the back. And, if so, what is the photo doing here?

“How did it end up in a book in Victoria?” Ganz asks. “That’s what I need to know.”

Ooh, it’s a delicious mystery — and, also, the kind of treasure that book sale volunteers dream of unearthing (Ganz once unpacked a first-edition Ayn Rand that fetched the charity event $750).

Some of us think it’s the volunteers themselves who are the real treasures of the sale. The Times Colonist name might be on the charity event, but it doesn’t happen without the small army of people, few of them with any connection to the newspaper, who spend two weeks sorting the hundreds of thousands of donated books.

Take Ganz. Each spring, she stations herself at the main sorting tables (that’s where she found the photo inside The Light Within Us, a collection of Schweitzer’s statements of faith) before curating the poetry books.

Ganz sends works by Canadian poets to the Canadiana section, and sorts others on a table of their own (she has yet to find a copy of her own book, Frequent Small Loads of Laundry, which was a finalist for the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize last year).

Why volunteer? Because she loves books, even loves the paper on which many are printed (she occasionally wanders over to the foreign-languages section, just to feel the plant-based stock some European publishers use).

A graphic designer, Ganz adjusts her hours to make room for the book-sorting. “I work at night so that I can come here in the day.”

Others juggle jobs and volunteering, too. Jeff Balderston has been coming to the Victoria Curling Club — the site of the sale — straight from night shift at the Royal Jubilee Hospital lab. The 36-year-old does a lot of the heavy lifting, shifting boxes of books around, which he says gives him a nice workout. “I sleep like a baby.”

All volunteers find their own reasons to return each year. Over in the Sci-Fi section, retired librarian Stephen Lee likes the arc of the sale, seeing the chaos of a curling arena jam-packed with donated books gradually become well ordered, then emptied completely within a couple of days.

He is also among many who are drawn by the camaraderie of the annual effort. Some volunteers (thinking of you, Ruth!) feel miserable when life’s twists and turns prevent them from pitching in.

It took a doctor’s orders to prevent the travel section’s Rosy Kwok, a high school teacher in Hong Kong before immigrating to Canada, from showing up while undergoing cancer treatment one spring several years ago.

For some, volunteering is just a way of life. Retired Mountie Doug Smith shows up for the duration of the book drive each spring, helps out at Operation Trackshoes every year, serves as the safety co-ordinator for the Dragon Boat Festival, pitches in at the Rainbow Kitchen on Tuesdays and rings the bells for the Salvation Army every December.

Inevitably, time takes its toll on this close-knit band. Smith’s sister Kathy Cropp was one of several longtime volunteers who died in the past year.

Janina Crawford, for so long a fixture in the Food section, is also gone. So is Barb McLintock, whom British Columbians knew better as a journalist and coroner.

So is Gladys Barman, the cheerful, energetic octogenarian who would show up to sort books after covering three Times Colonist paper routes, on foot, each day.

So is Bob Taylor, the ringmaster of this circus, the volunteer co-ordinator whose cheerfully unflappable manner masked an absolute dedication to the cause, literacy.

For the past few years, Bob was backed up by his son Mark, who took on an increasing share of the load as Bob’s health worsened. This year, Mark did the job alone. Mark’s sister Cheryl Bazzarelli travelled from Edmonton to volunteer this year.

Albert Schweitzer is still celebrated as a paragon of selflessness. If you want to find some more good people, come down to the curling club this Saturday and Sunday.

Book sale basics

What you need to know about the 22nd annual Times Colonist Book Sale.

When: Saturday, May 11, and Sunday, May 12, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days.

Where: Victoria Curling Club, 1952 Quadra St.

How much: Hardcovers $3; softcovers $2; pocket books and children’s books $1.

How to pay: Cash, debit, MasterCard, Visa or American Express, but no cheques.

All the money raised will go to education and literacy programs on Vancouver Island.

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