McGill Book Fair to turn page on final chapter

When the doors finally close on the 40th edition of the McGill Book Fair (running from Oct. 18-20), they may never open again. This year's Fair could be the last .
Sarina Isenberg (centre) and the McGill Book Fair volunteers at the 2010 edition of the fair. Isenberg is a two-time winner of Jane B. Hood bursary – financed by proceeds of the book sales. / Photo: Owen Egan

40th edition of beloved sale may be its last

By Neale McDevitt

Think back to when you were young and vigorous and you agreed to help move your bookish friend – the one doing his PhD in comparative literature. The one with almost no earthly possessions except a wall of boxes crammed with nothing but books. Heavy books.

Remember how you cursed his name under your breath as you lugged those back-breaking boxes down the stairs from his old third-floor apartment and how you cursed his name out loud as you schlepped those same boxes up the stairs to his new third-floor apartment? Well, try doing that twice a week for six hours a day, eight months out of the year, and you might get an idea of what Victoria Lees means when she says that she, and the 24 other “fairies” of the annual institution known as the McGill Book Fair, “are very tired.”

So tired, in fact, that when the doors finally close on the Fair’s 40th edition (running from Oct. 18-20), they may never open again. This could be the last McGill Book Fair.

“We are wonderful old girls and we cried when we took the vote [on Sept. 13],” said Lees on a break from sorting books in the basement of Redpath Hall. “But, in the end, it was unanimous. We just can’t do this any more.”

Of the two dozen regular volunteers who work sorting, pricing and hefting books from the spring right through to Fair time, only a handful are able to cope with the physical demands of lifting boxes any more, meaning that more and more of the physical labour is falling on fewer and fewer shoulders. Add to that the three-day Fair itself, which Lees likens to “the running of the bulls at Pamplona,” and the whole venture can become quite daunting.

Lees says that attempts to recruit new volunteers over the years have been unsuccessful.

“The McGill Association of University Teachers has a list of retirees and we’ve tried going through that, but nothing,” said Lees, who, even if the Fair continues would be stepping down after this, her fourth year as co-ordinator. “This is something that really puzzles me. People are retiring younger and healthier – why aren’t they able to give us a hand?”

The loss of the Book Fair would be more than just the loss of one of McGill’s most beloved events. Proceeds from sales support a series scholarships and bursaries, with the Fair having raised in excess of $1.5 million over the past four decades, including a record $85,000 last year. Leftover books are donated to charitable organizations, thereby giving people who might not be able to afford a book, the opportunity to read.

And the Fair has been environmentally friendly since long before green became the new black. Lees estimates 50,000 books will hit the floor during this year’s Fair, meaning over the years millions of books that would have otherwise ended up as landfill have instead been given second, third and fourth lives.

Just days away from what could be the final Book Fair, Lees smiles wistfully at some of the “treasures” uncovered over the years in boxes of books from someone’s dead parents or grandparents. “We sold an original Dr. Johnson’s dictionary, first edition, for $1,800 – a real bargain. It was my first year and I was ignorant,” she laughed. “And just a few weeks ago we sold two James Bond novels for $10,000. I’ll miss discovering these gems.”

 The McGill Book Fair: Oct. 18 (1 pm – 9 pm); Oct. 19-20 (9 am – 9 pm); Redpath Hall. For more information visit