Vassar Today

One for the Books

By Lance Ringel

It all began back in 1949 when the Vassar Club of Washington, DC, was casting about for a new idea for raising funds. Two of the club’s officers had previous experience with book sales and, as the late Barbara Butts Dunn ’40 recalled in a video commemorating what would become the club’s most highly anticipated event, “Someone found that we could have a book sale in the basement. We didn’t make very much money, but we decided to try it again—and it worked.”

VCDC members honor book sale chairs from years past.
VCDC members honor book sale chairs from years past.

Did it ever. From that modest beginning grew one of the most amazing and effective fundraising efforts in Vassar history. The ultimate statistics are little short of astounding: Over 50 years, the dedicated members of the Vassar Club of Washington, DC, ran a total of 51 annual book sales, which raised $1.7 million in scholarship funds for Vassar-bound students from the DC area.

“The early sales had the atmosphere of parish fairs,” says Julia Cuniberti ’44, but soon, the fair was making more and more money and growing by leaps and bounds. By 1976, sorting all of these donations—a year-round task—had become so complex that the club bought a basement space in a condominium building to use as a sorting center.

“The gross was $25,000 in 1979,” adds FK Millar ’44, “but it grew quickly to $100,000 once they organized previews of the sale the night before it opened.”

By then, the morning of the sale had become its own ritual, as eager customers would come stampeding in as soon as the doors opened. Charlotte Smith Seward ’54 vividly remembers “the first time I’d really seen the crowds … we had this little bitty volunteer who was literally flattened against one of the columns as they rushed by.” 

“It was like being in Grand Central Station at five o’clock on a Friday afternoon,” adds Leslie Carter Silver ’71. “It really did require an awful lot of person power,” says Alix Slawsky Johnson ’72 of the volunteers who kept the book sales going. “It was a full-time job for them.”

Patricia “Twiss” Maynard Butler ‘52 shows clippings about past VCDC events compiled by Alix Gould Myerson ‘71.
Patricia “Twiss” Maynard Butler ‘52 shows clippings about past VCDC events compiled by Alix Gould Myerson ‘71.

“I admired their commitment to scholarship, to Vassar, and just to the idea that you do a job well,” says Alix Gould Myerson ’71. “The women who were really the backbone of the sale were passionate book people, and they loved what they were doing.”

Volunteer Elisabeth West FitzHugh ’47 admits, “I was hoping in the course of sorting books that I would come across something I’d been looking for for a long time, or maybe didn’t know I’d been looking for.”

Even at the height of its success, it was becoming clear that sustaining such a mammoth project would be difficult. The number of volunteers began to decline, and appropriate (and affordable) space became increasingly more difficult to find. The final Vassar Club of Washington, DC, Book Sale took place in 1999.

But that was not the end of the story. The club then opened an investment account for its cash reserves, which were derived mostly from the sale of the sorting center. That account grew to $477,000, which, last year, was presented to the college by the club in support of the Vassar 150: World Changing campaign. 

On November 29, 2012, book sale veterans were among those who gathered at Washington’s Willard Hotel for a well-deserved celebration. President Hill thanked the crowd “for all that you have done, and are doing, to help us realize our founder’s vision of access to a Vassar education for all students who qualify, regardless of their means.” As an enduring tribute to all of the Vassar alums who made the book sale possible, the money now endows the Vassar Club of Washington, DC, Book Sale Scholarship.