How to Make $100,000 and Infinite Units of Charm

The Victoria College Book Sale—one of the great used book sales put on annually by University of Toronto colleges—is a fine example of how to make $100,000 in a single weekend while turning out vast quantities of enchantment and love. Outside the slick infinity of Googlebooks there is a world of heavy old paper things that we delight in moving about.

Jackie Mayer
Jackie Mayer

The spell is cast the moment you walk into the Old Vic building, the massive castle in the middle of Victoria University, where Northrop Frye taught Margaret Atwood English in the late fifties. “I missed her by a year,” says Jackie Mayer, president of her class association (’57). Jackie volunteers at the cash, mentally totaling the pencil-written prices from countless books over the weekend. Most cost only three or four dollars. About one hundred and fifty other volunteers work under the supervision of Nancy Ruhnke, the sale’s chair. Although the verb “work” feels wrong somehow when you see the happy movement of the place.

Thousands of books pass through thousands of hands in a symbiotic stream. The event is like an Ikea ball room for grown-up nerds. Check your things, tumble in anywhere, grope around for an empty box, fill, repeat. Lovers of the digital and analogue alike will enjoy feelings of surfing and stumbling upon. The Victoria sale was particularly strong in trade fiction and English literature, but who knows what University College (Oct 14-18), Trinity (Oct 20-24), and St Michael’s (Oct 25-29) will offer this season.

After processing a teenager in a bowtie with Hamlet tucked under his arm, Jackie tells me she feels bad for the students at U of T these days. “They aren’t allowed to do the things we did.” One such permission involved greasing a large pole, setting a freshman cap upon it, and raising it at the centre of the football field. The freshmen would collect garbage from Bloor St. and bombard the upperclassmen defending the pole with rotten food and other trash. Jackie tells me that her class was the first in thirty years to retrieve the cap. “It was significant,” she recalls.