Volunteers at the Evanston Public Library book sale in 2011 Credit: Ryan Pagelow

It was a dark and stormy night last Wednesday when the Evanston Library board met to discuss the fate of its long-standing used-book sale. You wouldn’t have guessed from the meager turnout that the cancellation of the quarterly event, and of the book-donation program that fueled it, has evoked some real passion in the community, especially among the volunteers who ran and staffed the sale, and worked year-round sorting a mountain of donations.

According to the library’s website, 1,000 books and related items (DVDs, CDs, etc) came in every week for the sale, which occupied its own sizable room on the third floor of the main library building at Church and Orrington. Every three months or so, the public would be invited in to peruse the collection and purchase items at bargain-basement prices.

Not to be confused with the little book nook on the first floor, which continues to sell deaccessioned books from the library’s collection, the quarterly sale was a significant treasure trove, beloved enough to land a spot on the Reader‘s Best of Chicago list in 2009.

But last year, volunteers were stunned to learn that the decades-old program was being shut down. An announcement went up on the library website that donations would no longer be accepted after July 9, and a weekend “blowout” sale to dispose of the existing stock at $1 each was held in August (volunteers continued to sell the dwindling remainders on Mondays from 10 AM to 2 PM). The reason? An imminent major renovation of the 23-year-old building. The renovation plan called for the Used Book Room on the third floor to be turned into meeting space.

Eight months after that final sale, the $10.5 million renovation plan has been, um, shelved. The project was to be funded by a bond sale. That required approval by the Evanston City Council, which demurred. The city’s also rebuilding the Robert Crown Community Center, a $48 million project that includes a library branch, and the council feared that a second, simultaneous bond sale would be one too many. The main library renovation was put on hold for at least two years.

Meanwhile, the volunteers say, their former space is standing idle. When it became clear that the renovation wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, they began to inquire about resurrecting their program, which they say was bringing in roughly $12,000 to $16,000 for the library every quarter. They say it could have still been humming along, providing a service to donors and buyers and some valuable income for the library.

At last week’s meeting, however, members of the library staff presented the board with a litany of reasons not to bring the sale back. Facilities manager John Devaney said the challenges to a restart “are many,” beginning with his need to clear the third floor out by January 2020 if the money for the renovation becomes available then. He said, since the end of the Brandeis book sale in 2006, the Evanston library has been “the epicenter for donations on the North Shore.” This has its downside. The books are heavy and bulky, he said; moving them around was taking about ten hours of a staff member’s time each week, and a whopping 70 percent of what came in was junk that went straight to recycling.

And then he mentioned something that brought the room to attention: since they stopped taking donations, “we’re getting less cockroaches.”

All this was seconded by Don Westphal, the book sale’s dedicated maintenance employee, who said he loves the sale but agreed that it was hard to carry all those books into the library, that it took time to cut down the cardboard boxes they came in, and that afterward he had to wrangle 96-gallon recycling bins.

Also, he said, sometimes the materials had “critters and mold.” He’s gotten bites.

Library director Karen Danczak Lyons said her staff is still looking at options, including an outdoor receptacle for a vendor who would take the books, sell them, and return 10 percent of the money to the library. But she was clear about this: the sale, she said, “just can’t be restored the way it was before. It didn’t work for us.”

Board president Ben Schapiro, a career librarian himself, said, “Maybe we don’t do any sale for 20 months. I have a concern about what comes in piggyback with those books.” Devaney concurred about the danger of something that could contaminate the entire collection. After that, the board went into a closed session.

The volunteers I talked with were surprised to hear about the bug threat. They swear that, in their combined decades of working in the Used Book Room, they’ve never seen any bugs. Nevertheless, last Monday was the final opportunity to browse the remaining stock. Without any new books coming in, customers were dwindling, and they made the difficult decision to call it quits—at least for now. They’ll gather at the library in May for a farewell lunch.