Dumpster Diving at the Kelly Library

One of my favourite book-finding spots in the city is the Kelly Library in St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. Every week they stock a table in the cafe with books withdrawn from their stacks, and every week the entire table is replaced with a new batch of books. The books seem to represent particular sections of the library: one week might be American Cinema, the next week the French Revolution. Every book on the table is 50 cents, to be deposited into a little wooden box.

Visiting the Kelly Cafe is one of my weekly rituals. I don’t often find something to buy, but when I do it is usually something totally unique and impossible to have found any other way. I exercise uncommon discretion – I bike there and can’t cart a huge batch of books home, and anyway I want to leave some pickings for others.

I have lately been studying the ins and outs of German typography – blackletter fonts, Fraktur and the like – and by coincidence, last week’s theme at the Kelly Cafe seemed to be early-to-mid nineteenth century devotional and theological books in German. My typefaces were in full display here over about a hundred year period. But for whatever reason I didn’t buy any. I hesitated, wondered if I really needed them, hummed about the subject matter.

By the weekend I totally regretted my decision.  Honestly, for 50 cents surely I should justify a few books to practice transcribing and identifying the texts!  I tried to go back on Saturday only to find them closed, I tried phoning on Monday to find same. This morning I ran down there first thing in the morning to try to intercept my books before they vanished to wherever they go when they are replaced by the next week’s offerings.  They had indeed been replaced (luckily, this week’s batch included some nineteenth century German philosophy, so I picked up a few books there).

I asked the librarians what becomes of the books once they are replaced.  They are, I was told, recycled.  In a meek voice I pushed further… had… the recycling been disposed of?  Luckily no, it had not.  Could I look through it?  Why yes, I was quite welcome!

So a nice librarian took me down into the bowels of the library to root through their massive recycling bins.  They were packed full of books – good books, interesting books! – and luckily, included my early ninteenth century German pickings.  I scavenged what I could.  I joked to the librarian, “I bet this must happen a lot – mad bibliophiles wanting to root through your garbage?”  “No,” I was told. “You are the first.”

Alright, honestly.  I can’t be the only girl in Toronto willing to sort through a library’s recycling in order to get at a useful (and free) book.  But then, nobody took them when they were 50 cents and on offer in the cafe either.  What is this?!  Are ex-libris books really so maligned?  These books are in excellent condition.  Many are leather-bound.  Some are old, many are out of print, lots are hard to come by any other way.  Readers and academics will find treasures there.

I can only conclude that people must just be unaware of this treasure-trove.  Hence this post today.  Looking for cheap, good, interesting and unexpected books?  Might I recommend the Kelly Cafe?  You should check it out, weekly even!  And buy things when you see them, because otherwise you might need to go dumpster-diving to get at them the following week in a fit of regret.

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