By Walter Bowne
Recently, more than 100 booklovers crammed into the Gloucester County Library in Mullica Hill - an oasis of tranquillity and civility. It was the opening of the library's book sale.
Most of us were there to buy a few used books - but then, there were the Others.
I warn you: Book sales can be mean. They are an unhealthy blend of Norman Rockwell and capitalism. Arrive early and you can witness the sideshow: the wrinkle-shirted book dealers with their dollies and empty cardboard boxes.
In a steady, warm July drizzle, the dealers rushed the outside tent. Five minutes later, one of the usually friendly volunteers stormed in, saying, "It's not officially open yet! What's wrong with you people?"
No one answered.
"Cheap books!" I said, cheerfully. "Give the people want they want!"
Inside, the vultures ravaged the tables to stock their online stores or used bookstores. They had roaming goons, too, minions separating the Hemingways from the Harlequins. Eyes and hands never moved so fast. They filled up cardboard boxes faster than a ShopRite checkout boy on Red Bull.
For fun, observers should move slowly through these sales, as motorists do to thwart tailgaters. At least speeders won't knock you in the bumper like one dealer with her box that kept poking my wife, who was just like most of us - simply looking for a few good books. Dealers, however, who simply want 1,000 good books, act as if we're interrupting their eBay businesses.
One thinning-haired man with a scruffy beard and wrinkled shorts was yelling obscenities as he flung empty boxes. One smacked a guy as he entered. "I'm trying to work here!" the dealer snarled. "Someone took my damn books! This is insane!"
Everyone froze - except the other dealers, who knew that it was an excellent time to snatch more books. The crazed man accused the elderly volunteers of incompetence. It was excellent entertainment.
One of the volunteers told the enraged dealer he would have to leave if he didn't calm down. "We have women and children present!" he said, even threatening to call the police.
Later, I heard another bookseller reprimand a rummaging citizen: "That's my box! It's marked! Those are not for sale!" His unmarked box was filled with Mencken's American Language, Voltaire's Candide, and Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago.
When the thinning-haired dealer wasn't looking, I flipped a couple of cheesy-looking mystery books into his box - like tossing Spam into a vegetarian's shopping cart.
"Take that!" I cried to myself. "Power to the proletariat!" A little retaliation worth a private giggle.
King Solomon couldn't have resolved the conflict when two dealers spied a vintage edition of Joseph Heller's Catch-22.
Book sales are no places for children.In the kids section, the build-the-home-library Super Moms squeezed my two daughters out from the table. One accused me of swiping an Arthur book from her line of sight. I backed away slowly, protecting my two daughters.
"It's worth 25 cents," I conceded. "You may have it."
"Why is everyone so crazy?" my 7-year-old, Madeline, asked.
"Greed, sweetie, greed."
That's when I said we should go home and hear one of Daddy's scary stories.
"The one where the witch makes a ladder out of kids' bones?" my younger daughter, Nancy, asked.
"No, one even scarier. Once upon a time, there was this book dealer . . ."