New chapter written for beloved Book Fair

When the door closed behind Victoria Lees as she left Redpath Hall around 10 p.m. on a rainy Thursday, Oct. 10, she felt sad because she knew it was also shutting on one of McGill’s most venerable events; the University’s annual Book Fair.
On Nov. 28, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum congratulated the entire Book Fair team for their hard work. The Principal is pictured here with Victoria Lees, outgoing Book Fair coordinator (left), and one of the incoming coordinators, Fraser Dickson. / Photo: Owen Egan

McGill grads pick up the torch to keep iconic sale alive

By Neale McDevitt

All that was missing was a suit of shining armour.

When the door closed behind Victoria Lees as she left Redpath Hall around 10 p.m. on a rainy Thursday, Oct. 10, she felt sad because she knew it was also shutting on one of McGill’s most venerable events; the University’s annual Book Fair.

One of McGill’s truly iconic events, the Book Fair collects hundreds of thousands of books each year, donating many to third world charities and selling the bulk of them at cut-rate prices. All proceeds are used to support student scholarships and, since its inception in 1971, the Fair has raised over $1.5-million.

This past September, however, Lees, coordinator of the Fair for the past four years, and her dedicated band of two dozen golden-aged “book fairies,” had tearfully voted to close up shop following the sale’s 40th edition.

Time had taken its toll on the team – a number of whom are in their 80s – and the task of lugging and sorting hundreds of thousands of books, then lugging them some more, had simply become too much. “We are all very tired,” Lees told the McGill Reporter in October.

But if the Book Fair could channel the voice of any one author, it might best be served by Mark Twain who so famously said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

 Fortuitous detour

“I was just stepping out of Redpath Hall when a young man came running out of the rain and asked ‘Are you Victoria?’ We stood in the shelter of the doorway for an hour talking about the Book Fair,” said Lees. “He told me he wanted to keep it going.”

That young man was Fraser Dickson, a 2009 grad in Humanistic Studies currently working at Xerox. “I had seen a couple of articles about the Book Fair closing and I thought it was a shame,” Dickson said. “When I was a student, I just cleaned up at the Fair for a couple of years.”

Coming home from the gym that night, Dickson asked himself what would it take to keep the tradition going? “It needs hard work, youth and people who love books,” he said. “I realized I could inject some of that and I could probably find some other like-minded people.

“I decided to make a detour on my walk home and talk to Victoria.”

For Lees, the good news was twofold because another recent grad, Jonathan Haines, (Linguistics, 2010) had earlier offered to help keep the Fair running – provided he could share the Herculean task with someone else.

So make that two suits of shining armour.

“If I was doing this alone I would have some trepidation,” said Haines, who has worked at the Book Fair for the past five years. “Not only do I have a co-coordinator in Fraser, but there is also a huge base of volunteers who came forward at the last sale after they heard it was closing. This makes it a much less intimidating undertaking.”

 Learning from the best

Haines and Dickson will also benefit from Lees’ invaluable experience, as she will act as mentor in the months leading up to the 2012 Fair. “During Victoria’s four years as coordinator, we have doubled the amount we have given the University – this speaks for itself in terms of the incredible job she has done,” said Haines. “We want to learn as much as possible from her and try to continue the pattern.”

But the team also wants to tweak the Fair somewhat in hopes of making it even more successful. While many of the original “book fairies” will stay on, Haines and Dickson are hoping to recruit younger volunteers to help shoulder the work. They also plan to increase promotion of the Fair among McGill students and young Montrealers.

Regardless of the demographic shift in the Book Fair’s personnel, one thing remains the same: this is an institution too important to let fade into the mist.

“In a time when resources are increasing limited, this is a remarkable program,” said Dickson. “It doesn’t cost anything but hard work. It assembles scattered but worthy resources and diverts them to where they are most needed. Books come in and are sold to raise money for scholarships and leftover books are donated to charity. It melds the best of environmentalism, promotion of literacy and our charitable instincts.”

The McGill Book Fair will be collecting books (paperback or hardcover, all subjects and all languages), LPs, CDs, DVDs and sheet music on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the basement of Redpath Hall beginning Feb. 21, 2012. No magazines, journals or encyclopedias, please.

For more information on how to donate books or volunteer, contact Jonathan Haines at or Fraser Dickson at