Prairie Lights: Billings church’s book sale has multi-state bragging rights

Ron May does some sorting in preparation for Central Christian Church’s fall book sale. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

The best things in life, I’m convinced, are completely unplanned. If they are meant to happen, they will, and if they are good they will continue and get better.

Ed Kemmick

So it has been with the twice-annual used-book sales at Central Christian Church, at 1221 16th St. W.

The sale began modestly enough about 11 years ago, when volunteers put a couple of thousand books out on maybe a dozen tables. This Tuesday, when the fall sale opens at 5 p.m., there will be more than 60,000 books on more than 80 tables, spilling out of the church’s Fellowship Hall into four adjoining rooms and two long hallways.

Ron May, who coordinates the sale for Central Christian, did a little research this year and he thinks they’ve got bragging rights.

“We’re very confident that we’re the largest in the state,” he said. “And we can’t find anything larger in Idaho, Wyoming or the Dakotas.”

The Friends of the Billings Public Library used to have a bigger sale, but since the new library opened and the Friends lost the vacant third floor of the old (and now demolished) library, its sale, good as it is, is considerably smaller than Central Christian’s. (The next Friends’ sale is scheduled for Oct. 12-14, in the library’s Royal Johnson Community Room.)

May said the fall sale is being advertised as having “over 60,000 titles,” but he knows the total is well over that number. Though it’s an inexact science, after all these years he’s pretty good at estimating how many books are in each box in storage at the church, and as of Aug. 1, May said, he counted 62,000 books.

Since then, the donations of books have continued pouring in, especially after the church sent out postcards reminding fans of the sale a few weeks ago. Just two weeks ago, he said, one donor gave the church two pickup loads of books, and last week another donor filled one and a half pickups. Hardly a day goes by when somebody doesn’t drop off books at the church.

For more than a few volunteers, May said, the spring and fall book sales have them coming in to do at least a few hours of work almost every day all year long. May said he read once about the man whose job was to paint the Golden Gate Bridge. By the time he got to one end of it, it was time to start painting the other end again, and he put in a lifetime at the job.

“Well, this is our bridge,” May said. “But that’s fine. It’s a labor of love.”

Volunteers examine every book that comes in. Price stickers are carefully removed and books that need it are gently cleaned, then categorized for proper placement during the sale. There are sections of books on art, politics, history, religion, romance, science-fiction, travel, self-help and many more.

Notably, since the sales began 11 years ago, prices have not been raised. Paperbacks are 50 cents and hardcover books are $1, as are puzzles, CDs, DVDs and vinyl records. A small number of books are specially priced at each sale, but they are few and the special prices rarely exceed $8 or $10, May said.

May and company know how to keep people coming back, too, by bringing out new books for each day of the five-day sale.

“Every day we bring out literally thousands of books that were not out the previous day,” he said.

May is assisted by some regular helpers — he singled out Ed Riesinger, Doug Garner, Janine Foster and Jeff Anderson — but he also said that “most everyone in the congregation helps in one way or another.”

Proceeds help support the church’s community services, children’s programs and outreach efforts, including Disciple Women. They also help keep the church running by paying bills for light, heat and other essentials. May was hesitant to say just how much the sales bring in.

“How much do we make? Lots. Lots and lots.”

When it’s time to cull books, the extras go to nursing homes, libraries, the women’s prison and other places that are always looking for books.

May doesn’t know how many people come to the sales, but he said the Fellowship Hall always seems to be full (an assessment I can vouch for), and he knows exactly how many people were standing in line when the spring sale opened on a Tuesday night: 161.

“I hear about the death of the book,” May said. “I haven’t seen that by any means.”


The fall sale opens this Tuesday from 5 to 8 p.m. and continues on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you have books to donate, call 252-1828. They will pick up.