PAUL GRONDAHL Staff writer
Section: LIFE & LEISURE,  Page: C1

Date: Monday, June 14, 1993

When the developer considering making condos out of the city-owned Harmanus Bleecker Hall, home of the Bryn Mawr Book Shop, began measuring for a two-car garage amid a shelf of literary biographies, the booksellers were nonchalant.

"Nothing ever came of his proposal and we ended up selling him $150 worth of books," says manager Sally Patterson (Bryn Mawr Class of '73, Russian major). "We've kind of gotten used to being squatters as the city tries to sell the building." As the Bryn Mawr Book Shop celebrated its 25th anniversary last week 6/8-12 with a 25 percent discount on all of its 50,000 used books, past and present "Bryn Mawr girls" reminisced on its charmed history.

When other society ladies were holding bake sales in 1968, Barbara Dudley (Bryn Mawr '42, English) and Virginia Bennett (Bryn Mawr '38, history) decided to hold a book sale.

That first sale, using selections from their own libraries and books donated by friends, was so successful that founders Dudley and Bennett eventually moved their operation into the old McKownville firehouse.

"They eventually wanted the firehouse back and tried to evict us," recalls Dudley, of Rensselaerville. "To get their message across, they parked a firetruck in the middle of the stacks one day. We just piled books on top of it and went about our business."

Dudley laughs at their civil disobedience on behalf of literature and remarks, "We live dangerously, don't we?"

Dudley and Bennett cut a deal in 1977 with the late Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd. He gave them space in a rear basement area of Harmanus Bleecker Hall at a reasonable rent after the Albany Public Library moved to its new building nearby on Washington Avenue.

It has been at the location (corner of Dove and Spring streets, just off Washington Avenue) ever since. The non-profit organization, which has a paid manager and volunteer assistants, pays rent to the city. All remaining proceeds go into the scholarship fund. Book donations are tax-deductible.

For now, the city has allowed the shop to stay in the building while it is toured by prospective buyers.

The Bryn Mawr girls, as they like to call themselves, plan to wait it out and will move to a new location only when a buyer materializes and kicks them out.

With its creaky hardwood floors, musty scent of 19th-century bindings and books lined, piled and stacked chockablock in hallways, closets and cubbyholes, walls plastered with prints and posters for sale, the Bryn Mawr Book Shop brims with personality.

Technology is non-existent. Sales are totaled with pencil and paper. There are no cash registers. Money boxes common to bake sales are used.

Despite the antiquated system, the money has piled up quietly over the years on behalf of the Regional Scholarship Fund of Bryn Mawr College. Roughly $600,000 from the bookshop has been pumped into the scholarship fund during its 25 years.

Albany was the first of its kind. Others followed and now there are 10 bookshops throughout the Northeast contributing profits to the Bryn Mawr scholarship fund.

"They saw how well we were doing, and figured if Albany can do it, Boston and New York City ought to be able to," Dudley says.

In recent years, the Albany bookshop has averaged $20,000 to $30,000 annually in profits turned over to the program. The money provides scholarships for young women from the Capital Region bound for Bryn Mawr, a women's liberal arts college outside Philadelphia that is one of the so-called "Seven Sisters" schools.

With tuition, room and board costing about $20,000 a year currently at Bryn Mawr, the scholarship money is in more demand than ever.

In fact, Patterson, who has been manager for the past three years, went to Bryn Mawr with the assistance of bookshop scholarship money. "I couldn't have gone to Bryn Mawr without it," she says.

What Patterson discovered at Bryn Mawr is epitomized in a Thurber cartoon for The New Yorker taped to a window in the bookshop's front door.

A party hostess wearing a formal gown and a scowl watches a young woman dancing wildly, as if choreographed by Twyla Tharp, while the other partygoers stare in disbelief. The peeved hostess tells one of her starched female friends, "She's all I know about Bryn Mawr and she's all I have to know."

The Bryn Mawr Book Shop has become a kind of informal alumnae center.

"I'm a fan of used-book shops and used to come in here, and they put me to work," says Vicki Cline (Bryn Mawr '73, Latin and music), one of about 30 volunteers who work in the shop.

Cline's mom, Arvilla Cline, also volunteers.

"She's a Radcliffe grad, but we let her in," Patterson says.

"I love working here because sooner or later, everybody who is anybody, after giving up on finding a particular book anywhere else, ends up here looking for something unpredictable," Arvilla Cline says.

The bookshop has a selection of rare and antique books and first editions. Its collection is particularly broad in books of regional interest. Its prices range from 25 cents for popular fiction in hardcover to $750 for a boxed volume with exquisite hand calligraphy, "The Ship That Sailed To Mars," the highest-priced book sold in the past few years.

A sign on a wall says, "Any Book You Haven't Read Is a New Book."

Their books arrive in great waves of boxes, often an entire estate at a time.

The only offerings they turn away are Reader's Digest condensed books and textbooks that have been annotated heavily.

The Bryn Mawr girls have a lot of heavyweight contacts.

For instance, Dudley is a friend of Victoria Newhouse, wife of S.I. Newhouse, the media mogul and owner of Conde Nast.

Newhouse was trying to make a little room in their overstocked library. She sent the Bryn Mawr Book Shop 60 boxes of expensive, coffee-table art books.

Some are signed by the artist, including many giants of modern painting.

"We're just going through them and pricing them now and it's such a pleasure to leaf through these incredible art books and see signatures from Salvador Dali and artists of that stature," Patterson says.

Although the collectors, as surely as blowing dandelion fluff, have begun descending on the bookshop at the start of their summer hunt -- an Arizona collector was in last week -- the bulk of the buyers are simply serious readers.

"I like the amount of books, the mix, the fact that most are in good condition and the prices," says Kenny Fass, who bought six books on language studies and cultural criticism for $9.07 one morning last week.

Fass, of Albany, a social worker who is taking courses in psychology and philosophy at the State University at Albany, discovered the bookshop about two years ago. "Whenever I browse here, I always come upon something that surprises and intrigues me," he says.

Caveat emptor. You're liable to end up working at the place. That's what happened to Pat Price, who works as a legal assistant in the neighborhood and spends many lunch hours browsing the aisles.

"I was in here one Saturday last fall buying books for my grandson and Sally recruited me," Price says. "I've been working Saturday afternoons ever since."

Bennett, of Slingerlands, still works in the bookshop two days a week as she has since she helped start the project in 1968.

"We've had some good times and survived quite a few setbacks," Bennett says. "Books are such a wonderful field. We all love books. That's what keeps us going. I won't be around to see it, but I think the bookshop will be going strong 25 years from now."

Bryn Mawr Book Shop's 25th anniversary sale continues with a sidewalk sale offering books for 50 cents on Wednesday June 16, from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The shop is located in Harmanus Bleecker Hall on Dove Street, between Washington and Spring. For more information, call the shop at 465-8126.