Ithaca Book Sale…Like A Pilgrimage For The Historian

If you are into history, then you are into books. That is just the way it is. And if this is true, you need to go to Ithaca, NY, for the semi-annual book extravaganza.

The pandemic has been cruel is many ways, but the worst for me was when the May 2020 Ithaca book sale was cancelled. I was literally close to tears. But I am happy to report that the October sale was held on schedule – though with a few welcome modifications, like reduced capacity, masks, etc.

For those unfamiliar with this particular used book paradise, let me fill you in. One of the largest used book sales in the country, the Ithaca book sale boasts over 100,000 volumes of just about all genres – and a particularly strong history offering. Run by the Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library, their website states that “the proceeds from our sales mainly benefit the Tompkins County Public Library (TCPL) and the Finger Lakes Library System (FLLS). We also support organizations working for literacy in Tompkins County.”  Since 1991 the book sale has been held at a large warehouse at 509 Esty Street in Ithaca. Sales are in May and October and run three weekends. Prices drop each new weekend. The last weekend of the fall sale is Oct. 31- Nov. 3rd.

I have made my way to this book sale for twenty years now, dating back to my days as an undergraduate at SUNY Cortland. I have braved wind and rain and snow – and often long lines to get in. Several times I have arrived at dawn to get a good place in line, only to find a row of tents outside the building. Folks come from all over the U.S. and sometimes camp out to assure they are among the first to browse the stacks.

Sometimes you find treasure, sometimes you find little, but the hunt is always great and a bit exciting. I always wonder, “what will I find this year?” Over the years I have bought many autographed volumes – including books signed by fmr. presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. I have even bought books that contained private letters, pressed flowers and newspaper clippings – all discovered later.

Civil War and military history buffs are sure to enjoy the Ithaca book sale. A full aisle is dedicated to this genre, but it is a very popular section. The sale is open to everyone – including professional book dealers. On opening weekend one of the challenges has always been to beat these folks to the Civil War section. Books in this section are often the popular battles and leaders tomes – though occasionally you will find academic works and specialized volumes, thanks to the nearby Cornell University and Ithaca College.

Once I got into the sale this year (I waited about 30 minutes) I quickly filled a bag with choice works. No special treasures this time around (I missed the first weekend when you have the best chance of scoring something great), but solid stuff that was missing from my collection. I was happy to find a copy of Hasslers’ classic bio of Gen. A.P. Hill – A.P. Hill: Lee’s Forgotten General. There was a fine hardcover (probably never read) of Steve Inskeep’s Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War. I also scored a newish copy of Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman by Harlow Giles Unger. Maybe my best Civil War find this trip was George Worthington Adams’ Doctors in Blue: The Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War.  Although Doctors in Blue is a bit dated (1952), it is still a great resource and I am happy to add it to my collection.

I should mention that this wonderland is not just a great collection of used books of all genres; the sale also includes maps, games, CDs, DVDs, and a large selection of albums. There is also a rare books room, where prices are marked on each volume (not according to the general prices) and a substantial children’s’ books section.

If this reads like an advertisement for the book sale, that may be. The Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library is a group worthy of support. But I write because I know many ECW readers are also book aficionados who would enjoy the Ithaca book sale as much as I do. You might even make it the kind of semi-annual pilgrimage I do – even if you travel from many states away.

Oh, and by the way, just around the corner from the book warehouse is the famous Ithaca Bakery. Make sure to stop there too. You will thank me later.

About Derek Maxfield

Associate Professor of History Genesee Community College
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2 Responses to Ithaca Book Sale…Like A Pilgrimage For The Historian

  1. M. Waters says:

    Oh, so you’re the guy that always cleans out the Civil War section before I get there … ?. Just kidding, based on the picture of your haul I think it was I who beat you to it this year. You’re welcome for leaving you ‘Doctors In Blue’ and the other one on A. P. Hill.

  2. Now I have two reasons to travel to New York. Elmira and THIS.

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