The Newberry Library has been holding its annual fair for three decades. Credit: Courtesy the Newberry Library

Dan Crawford has helped organize every Newberry Library Book Fair since the event began in 1985. Thirty fairs later, the 56-year-old is still excited by the wonderfully random and rare literature donated to the annual sale of more than 120,000 books. “I’m still seeing things I haven’t seen before,” he says. “You just never know what people have in their basements.” Recently, a man donated a large collection of Asian studies. “He planned to own a bookstore when he retired. When he finally did retire, his wife told him he would, in fact, not be opening a bookstore.”

Crawford’s job as fair manager is a full-time gig, since people drop off books all year round. While most of the stock is affordable, the 30th anniversary’s big-ticket items include autographed titles by three Nobel Peace Prize winners (Barack Obama, Albert Schweitzer, Desmond Tutu) and an English first edition of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy for $3,000. “Not really an impulse purchase, but it might go the first day,” Crawford says. “A couple of years ago we had a first edition of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged—a $2,500 book, and it went the first night.”

One type of shopper Crawford has come to know seeks books once owned by a prominent person, such as Sara Paretsky and other authors who drop off hauls every year. Before Roger Ebert died, the film critic bequeathed part of his personal library to the Newberry, some of which is still available. “He wrote his name, the date he bought the book, and where he was living at the time,” Crawford says.

All told, the fair takes in about $150,000, which is funneled back to the 127-year-old institution. “I always say the fair buys light bulbs and toilet paper,” Crawford says with a snort. “You can’t run a library without those.”