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Bazaar attracts boro’s bookmongers for charity

The stairs are steep and the hallways dim and quiet. Navigating through the Forest Hills Jewish Center gives little indication of what lies just ahead.

But inside a narrow basement doorway, beneath the glow of crystal chandeliers, for one week each year bibliophiles gorge within this auditorium-turned-book bazaar.

The sunken room contains table upon table, row upon row of books, each meticulously arranged by subject — history, psychology, children’s books, Judaica, fiction, cooking, and fine art. And while the books and CDs are fastidiously ordered, the energy level within the nest of knowledge is certainly not.

“Price! Price!” shouts a woman staffer in the requisite navy blue T-shirt. She races her way to Diana Walcott and Kim Trigoboff, two of the sale’s coordinators. Trigoboff takes the book as if in a relay and flips rapidly through its pages. “First printing. Twenty-five,” she says, passing it back into circulation.

“Priced to sell. That’s the theme of the sale this year. Everything is priced to sell,” says Walcott, with the fast and furious voice of an auctioneer. Frenzied by the day’s details, she announces refreshments for volunteers in an adjoining room, promptly adding, “Just made a golden rule: You spill it, you bought it.”

The staffer returns to Trigoboff with the first printing in one hand and a copy of “The Joy of Lesbian Sex” in the other. “She says we’re charging $25 because we know she wants it,” she says. Trigoboff rebuts, “Twenty. Tell her twenty.”

The staffer leaves. Walcott deadpans: “I’ve never known more peace in my life.”

The center’s balagon (Hebrew for “crazy”) book-selling began 16 years ago as a fund-raiser for its child-care center. Back then, it managed to scrape together a few thousand book donations. Over the years, however, the sale has grown in size and effort. This year the sale boasts more than 100,000 books gathered by 100 volunteers.

“It required tremendous amounts of — I’d say manpower, but it was mostly woman power,” says Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, the center’s rabbi of 20 years. “It’s dirty, dusty grunt work,” he adds, describing the laborious process of sorting and stacking titles and records throughout the year.

The fund-raiser is expected to draw between $20,000 and $30,000 in the nine days. But it is by no means the most lucrative of the center’s fund-raisers. “It’s nothing compared to the high holiday appeal or the journal dinner dance,” says Skolnik, “but as a grassroots effort, it’s all volunteers.”

Much of the merchandise comes from private donations — families moving or estate sales — but many are solicited directly from publishers. Imprints include Simon and Schuster, Random House and Harper Collins, which with others donated excess copies and stacks of highly coveted editor’s proofs. Two years ago a first edition of “The Diary of Anne Frank” was discovered by a volunteer. It was saved for a public auction and eventually drew $250.

There is free admission to the sale with the exception of Saturday nights and the annual preview. The preview, traditionally called “Dealer Night,” is when professional booksellers for a tense and harried four hours mine the mass collection.

Tom Plasko a dealer from Douglaston, fingers the pages of a first-edition Rilke. The asking price is $2. He expects to resell it for $25. Picking up an Italian translation of Heinrich Hein’s poetry, Plasko says the book is not without flaws. “It’s not a first edition, but it has nice illustrations. How much it’s worth I don’t know.”

Surveying the increasingly quiet room as its closing hour draws near, Walcott observes the dealers with an anthropologist’s eye. “You see what they’re doing,” she says, motioning to a pile of books draped with a jacket. “One guy had an Army duffel bag, and he filled it to prevent other people from getting them.”

The tactic, Walcott says, is to hoard as many books as possible on arrival. Only later does the whittling-down begin. Walcott says the private purchaser also employs jungle tactics — for example, deliberately mis-shelving a book so it goes unnoticed.

“It’s like Loehmann’s when you find this great size 8 stashed in the size 16s,” Walcott says.

David Manso, a bookseller from Little Neck, squats on the floor in an old pair of red Converse high-tops, jeans and a faded plaid shirt. A box of Marlboro reds is stashed in his shirt pocket and his face glistens with sweat.

“The pickings are pretty slim,” Manso says. “Many sales don’t like dealers. This sale accommodates them.”

Dealers are not known for their civility, Manso says, especially in tight quarters. “They’re too greedy. I’ve seen fights break out, books thrown, punches thrown. Your adrenaline starts pumping and you’re knocking little old ladies out of your way,” he says.

A few tables away, Foula Hristakis, a graphic designer from Forest Hills, gently thumbs through a crumbling collection of etchings. The parched pages contain the black and white works of Albrecht Durer. A glimpse at the title page shows it had been in the Guggenheim Memorial Library.

“Somebody’s trashing this. I can’t believe it,” Hristakis says eyeing the individual prints. “It’s falling apart, but I’d happily frame every last one of these.”

Reach reporter Jennifer warren by e-mail at timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

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