Cover Story

All Booked Up
By Bill Sherrod, Managing Editor

Michael Evans
Michael Evans’ parents started the Green Valley Book Fair in an old barn 30 years ago.

Six times a year, there’s a mass migration of sorts toward the Shenandoah Valley’s sylvan swaths.

From far and wide, literary pilgrims converge upon a locus near Mount Crawford, ground zero for the Green Valley Book Fair. Lasting about two weeks, each fair features half a million new books of all descriptions at bargain-basement prices. As one avid reader observes, if you save lunch money for a couple of weeks, you can buy enough books at the fair to require a wheelbarrow to get them home.

A Family Affair

The Green Valley Book Fair was started 30 years ago by Leighton and Kathryn Evans, according to their son, Michael. It was originally part of a family enterprise that also included an auction business. Michael, his sister Michele Evans Miller and mother Kathryn are the three family members still actively involved in operating the book fair. Michael’s brothers, Jeff and Greg, now operate the separate auction business.

“When I was a child, my parents had an auction business and managed a flea market in Harrisonburg that included sales of used and antique books. In 1971, my dad decided that he was tired of lugging all of the old books back and forth. They set up tables in the top of the old barn on our family farm, and opened up in September of 1971,” notes Michael. That first sale included all used and antique books and was not even called a “book fair.” But it was successful, and the Evanses saw potential for future expansion in that initial effort.

Book Boxes
Books arrive in pallet-sized boxes called “gaylords.”

“The following year, they did two sales,” Michael notes. “Then a book-dealer friend of my father’s in Pennsylvania put him in touch with people at a waste-paper company. They were receiving ‘hurt,’ or damaged — but still usable — books from the Book of the Month Club. We started purchasing them from the waste-paper company and within a couple of years started buying them directly from the Book of the Month Club.” This continued through the late 1970s and into the ’80s. The sales space expanded from the upstairs of the barn to include the lower level as well. In 1986 a large  building was erected to house both the auction and book-fair businesses, then in 1990 a second, two-story building was put up to house the book fair inventory. Now, the old barn, the two newer buildings and a warehouse behind them are all used for the book fair business. In all, there is about 25,000 square feet of floor space dedicated to the book fair.

The book fair operates six times annually from late March or early April through mid-December. The Evanses purchase books from a variety of sources now, and all of the books sold now are new, mostly bookstore returns from companies such as Random House and Houghton-Mifflin. Books arrive in “gaylords,” pallet-sized boxes that are shipped 22 to a truckload. Each gaylord contains from 750 (hardcover) to 1,500 (full-sized soft-cover) books. The books are mixed, so they have to be sorted and categorized before they can be put on shelves for sale.

Volumes of Business

25,000 square feet of floor space
In all, there is about 25,000 square feet of floor space dedicated to the book fair.

The sales attract as many as 20,000 readers, and at the peak of each sale, usually during the weekend, there may be as many as 23 cash registers running. The book fair employs 12 people full-time, as well as part-time cashiers and parking crews who work during the sales.

While the business does some advertising before each sale, the phenomenal growth of the Green Valley Book Fair is largely the result of book-lovers “spreading the word,” Evans says. And bibliophiles come from far and wide to experience the Shenandoah Valley book sales. “I got an e-mail from a gentleman in Scotland who discovered us during a trip to the states last year. He said he was planning another trip here and was going to time it so he could come to our October fair,” says Evans. “And we have people on our regular mailing list from as far away as the West Coast,” he adds.

Evans is a natural for this type of work. He grew up on the family property within sight of where the book-fair sales are now held. He was 7 years old when the first sale was held on the property. He’s loved books and reading since.

Evans majored in English literature at the College of William and Mary, did graduate work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and attended the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, where he earned an MFA in poetry. He has had numerous works of poetry published over the years and owns a manuscript that was a finalist in the Yale Younger Poets Award competition two years running.

“I started working here (at the book fair) in June 1994, when my wife and I moved back to Virginia after finishing school,” says Evans. “At that time, I was the fourth full-time employee here.”

Unpacking and sorting books
Twelve full-time employees have their hands full unpacking and sorting books between sales.

The 12 full-time book-fair employees today have their hands full in between sales receiving, unpacking, sorting, categorizing and shelving books for the next sale. The older of the two book-fair buildings typically is stocked with children’s books, cookbooks, gardening books, craft books and volumes covering similar topics. In the newer, two-floor building, fiction and literature books are stocked upstairs. Non-fiction volumes, covering topics such as history, religion, science and nature, health and self-help, are on the lower level. Other jobs range from building and placing shelves to formulating advertising and merchandising plans.

There’s nothing pretentious about the book-fair environs. The site is about two miles east of Interstate 81, off Exit 240, and if you visit before harvest, your first view of the facility will be across the tasseled top of an undulating cornfield. But the atmosphere is pleasant, the staff courteous and eager to help fellow readers and, if you like books, you’ll feel like a kid in a candy store.

Located just off I-81
The fair is located just off I-81 in a pastoral setting amidst cornfields.

Ready to Hit the Books?

For information on the Green Valley Book Fair, call (800) 385-0099 or (540) 434-0309, or visit the Web site at www.gvbookfair.com. For the remainder of this year, fairs are planned Oct. 6-21 and Nov. 23-Dec. 9. For 2002, fair dates are April 6-21, May 18-June 2, June 29-July 14, Aug. 10-25, Oct. 5-20 and Nov. 29-Dec. 15. The fair is open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily during scheduled dates.

 

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