There’s a great opportunity in Missoula this week to educate or entertain yourself and simultaneously help to pay for the education of local college students.

The Missoula branches of the American Association of University Women and Phi Delta Kappa, an education fraternity, are hosting their annual used book sale from Thursday to Sunday at the Orchard Homes Country Life Club at 2537 S. 3rd St. W.

Ann Sharkey and Nancy Zadra, the two chairpersons of the event, said the origins of the sale are fuzzy but it’s a tradition at least 40 years old.

All week, a small army of volunteers has been collecting and sorting donations from the community, and they’ve now got a pile of books that they estimate to be between 5,000 and 7,000 in number.

All proceeds from the sale benefit scholarships at the University of Montana and other education-based projects.

“It’s really remarkable,” Zadra explained. “This whole thing represents a huge community effort. I mean, we are absolutely astonished at the books people are bringing in. And then we also get a lot of volunteer help from the community, working with the sale. We couldn’t do this with a few people. We need a lot of people, so we really count on those community volunteers.”

The sale is successful every year because it allows people to trade in books they’ve already read and pick up new ones at a very affordable price for a good cause.

“We’re really happy to assist people with their spring cleaning and downsizing,” said Zadra, a retired teacher. “And it celebrates reading and literacy and we’re proud of that, especially since so many of us are in education. We are happy and proud that the effort helps students at UM.”

There are children’s books, gardening tutorials, self-help manuals, novels from Pulitzer winners and every genre in between, from history to politics. A copy of Lolo-based author James Lee Burke’s “Wayfaring Stranger” is just waiting for someone to claim it.

Neither Sharkey or Zadra could think of the strangest or rarest book they’ve ever gotten, but they said one year a person donated a whole collection of novels written in French.

“We didn’t think there would be high demand for it but of course on the last day a gentleman came in and asked if we had any novels written in French,” Zadra recalled. “He bought all of them.”

Both said the collection this year is massive.

“This year our sale is really robust because we’ve been given some collections, and we’ve also been given some estate books,” Sharkey said. “And that really boosts the amount of books and the quality of the books as well. We have a section that is all vintage books. Those are all specially priced. But they’re all wonderful deals because they’re not anywhere near what you’d pay on the internet.”

Most books are priced based on the width of their spine, $1.50 an inch, but there are special prices on some items.

“We have a wonderful Montana and the West collection,” Zadra said.

Last year, the sale netted more than $10,000, which is divided between the two groups.

“AAUW has given scholarships to students in social work, anthropology and women’s studies,” Sharkey said. “We have a lot of anthropology and Africa-related books this year.”

On the first day of the sale, Zadra said there’s always a huge line-up of 80 people outside the door.

“But when the doors open, the amazing thing is the room is full of people, but it’s very quiet because they’re all reading,” Zadra said.

None of the books are censored in any way, Sharkey noted.

“The whole thing is like a treasure hunt, and you never know what you’re going to find,” she said. “We have a lot of books on nature, wildlife guides, a mushroom guide, humor, a lot of current novels that are hot off the press that people have already read and are ready to pass on to someone else.”

The sale begins at 10 a.m. all four days. It ends at 8 p.m. Thursday, 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday, which is “Bag Day” to clear out the leftovers.

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