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Slice of Life: Adventures in book rummaging

The Saturday I’d been waiting for had finally arrived—The St. Thomas Second Saturday Barn Sale.

I10575136_556553724449570_3682088717977748468_o first heard about the sale on Even though St. Thomas is only a 7-minute drive from my house, I’d never heard of their famous “barn sales.” But after seeing the picture at the right posted on their Facebook page, I knew where I’d be spending my Saturday.

I have been working on building my classroom library for a few years, and although my library is fairly well-stocked now at 1200+ titles (yikes!), I can never resist a good used book sale. I’m also the unofficial “book buyer” for a few of my department colleagues who are just starting their classroom libraries. Because it’s nearly impossible for me to walk by a great book and not pick it up, this arrangement works well for me. 🙂

The “barn” itself is a part of an old farmhouse tucked humbly behind the church.  On that bright Saturday morning, I followed the narrow paved driveway which winds around the church grounds, passing a small cemetery on my right and the larger church parking lots on my left. At first I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. But soon I saw several rows of cars parked neatly on the back lawn, and I knew I had arrived. I also felt a little panicked, wondering if I’d come too late (I arrived about 45 minutes after the sale opened). Would all the “good” books be gone? I’d been to other library sales where stealthier teachers beat me to several copies of books I wanted.

After parking the car and following the signs, I found what I was looking for. Outside were tables stacked with boxes of books. Then inside the barn, shelves packed with even more books. There were easily tens of thousands of titles. I quickly texted my colleague the following picture, with the caption “I’ve hit the mother lode.”


I was in heaven. (I supposed it was fitting that the sale was at a church.)

IMG_0989Smiling, I started outside, moving swiftly from table to table, box to box. One of my favorite finds of the day was a beautiful hardcover coffee table book of National Geographic photographs. Inside the barn, I headed straight to the young adult section where I picked up titles by popular YA authors like Jenny Han and Gayle Forman. On the general fiction shelves, I found hardcovers of The Goldfinch and The Narrow Road to the Deep North and paperback copies of titles like Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, Swamplandia, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette? In the biography section, I scooped up a hardcover edition of Tina Fey’s BossyPants and in sports, a handful of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and The Blind Side, enough to use for book clubs in class. And at 50 cents per paperback and just $1 per hardcover, life was good. By the time I’d left, I’d spent $42 on 78 books. I’m sure I was glowing as I loaded the books into the trunk of my car.


One of the best parts of book rummaging are the surprises you find—there’s a joy in finding the “it” book sitting on the shelf of a used book sale. But another unexpected pleasure has been the people. At Saturday’s sale, for example, I found myself standing next to an older, white-haired woman hunched at the shelves, inspecting book spines through her reading glasses. “Have you seen any Amy Tans?” she asked me. “I just love her books.” When I located an Amy Tan title she hadn’t read yet, she beamed. A few minutes later, I suggested a copy of Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. “Oh, thank you!” she smiled, “I haven’t heard of her. Is it good?” When I assured her that she would probably like it if she liked Amy Tan, she quickly tucked it under her arm with her other finds.

Then there was a similarly older woman I saw with a copy of Fifty Shades of Gray in her hand. After winking at the cashier, she and her friend walked away giggling. Ironically—or appropriately, depending on how you look at it—the romance shelves that held copies of the E. L. James title stood right next to the “Religion and Spirituality” shelves.

…the intimacy we shared about Bryson’s work bound us together like old friends.

And then there was the elderly gentleman at check out. “These are all  yours?” he asked me, looking quite confused at the five bagfuls of books. “I’m an English teacher” was all I had to say. He smiled knowingly, “Ah, my niece is an English teacher, too.” Seeing my multiple copies of A Walk in the Woods, he asked me if I had ever read “the one he wrote about Australia. I think it’s called In a Sunburned Country.” When I told him I had, we exchanged some of our favorite things about it. In that moment, we were members of an impromptu Bill Bryson fan club, and the intimacy we shared about Bryson’s work bound us together like old friends.

Of course, not all encounters are as endearing. On that same Saturday, I overheard a conversation between a mother and daughter in the biography aisle. They had found one of the daughter’s required summer reading books. “Oh, it’s sooooo long,” the daughter moaned. I glanced over to see her flipping through a copy of James McBride’s memoir, Color of Water (it’s just shy of 300 pages).

“I’m so busy. I don’t have time to read this,” she complained.

“You are really busy this summer. I know,” her mother replied, sympathetically.

“Ugh, I’m not going to read it anyway,” she concluded, “I’m just going to SparkNote it.”

Her mother was unfazed. “Then why do you need a copy of it?”

“Because I’ll need to bring it to class,” she sighed, “And even if I did read it, I’d be the only one in standard English who would read the book anyway.”

My English teacher ears ached listening to this conversation. Looking back, it wasn’t even the daughter’s casual decision to “Sparknote” her reading that made me the most upset. It was the fact that the mother didn’t even blink and even seemed to support her daughter’s decision to skip the reading and head to the internet for support. “She basically told you she’s going to cheat!” I wanted to yell at the mother. “Why are you letting her get away with that?”

I’m not so naive to believe that these conversations don’t happen all the time. Maybe they do. And if that’s the case, then what? I think of my own three boys. My oldest is entering 5th grade next year, and I wonder when he’ll realize that he can get away with fake-reading. When does fake-reading become acceptable? I think of my sons and the thought of pretending to read something they didn’t would mortify them. As it should.

When does that change?

I suspected that the vast majority of students tried to read the book, gave up, and Sparknoted the rest.

And of course, all this made me wonder how we, as teachers, have become complicit in fake-reading. The last thing the daughter said—”I’d be the only one in standard English who would read the book anyway”—is telling. For the last three years, our incoming honors ninth graders were required to read Great Expectations. Of course, I’m sure some of the more adept readers really did read the book, cover to cover, and even enjoyed it (though they tend to be a quiet minority in class). But I suspected that the vast majority of students tried to read the book, gave up, and Sparknoted the rest. And we spent the first several weeks of the year discussing the book, pretending that’s not what happened.

So I walked away feeling a little defeated after overhearing that conversation, but it did give me a lot to think about. Then in my Twitter feed this morning, I came across an excerpt from No More Summer Reading Loss that outlined the things teachers could do during the school year to inspire—not require—summer reading. As authors Carrie Cahill and Kathy Horvath point out, we need to “foster habits of independence during the school year” so that those habits can continue during the summer. Too many students read during the summer in spite of their school-year experiences, and not because of them. And of course, some students don’t read at all.

Which of course brings me back to my book-rummaging-filled weekends. Maybe that’s why I can’t seem to stop adding titles to my classroom library. I never know which one could be that book for a student—the one that finally turns him on to reading. The Bill Bryson, the Amy Tan, and yes, even the E. L. James (well, maybe not that one). It’s all about finding the right book at the right time. I want to make sure that right book is waiting.

slice of lifeThis post is part of the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, a weekly invitation to share a snapshot of life through writing. To read more or participate, click here.


  1. I’m always pulled in by a post that includes book in the title. Loved this . . . the bags of books, the conversations with fellow book lovers, the reflection about summer reading. Book sales are heaven!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Loralee

    Oh my goodness! How I wish I could have been at that sale too! What finds!
    Thank you for writing about your experience.
    I enjoyed reading the conversations you had and your reflections.


  3. Pingback: Reading Slump | Tricia Ebarvia

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