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A line of people wrapped around the outside of the Santa Rosa Veterans Building Friday afternoon, waiting for the main auditorium to open. It wasn't a band about to take the stage: It was books.

Friends of the Santa Rosa Libraries on Friday kicked off its twice-yearly book sale to raise money for all three Santa Rosa libraries; the sale continues through today, when browsers can fill a whole bag with reading material for $5. The nonprofit Friends group expected to bring in $30,000 or more from the four-day sale, which will help Santa Rosa libraries buy new books and expand the programs they offer, among other things.

Money from book sales has been an important revenue boost for local libraries since the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which limited property taxes, a main funding source for libraries, said Carl Jackson, who has volunteered with the Friends group for 44 years.

At their peak before the recession, the Friends group brought in as much as $40,000 during one sale and more than $100,000 annually for the libraries, Jackson said. Over the years, the group has raised about $1.5 million, he estimated.

But in recent years, perhaps because of the recession, sales declined. The last sale brought in just $25,000.

But this weekend, the Friends group has already made close to that amount, Jackson said. About 400 to 500 people showed up over the course of 4? hours on Friday to get first pick of the selection; around 800 people passed through on Saturday, he said.

Sunday was half-price day. Late in the morning, 100 or so people milled about the auditorium, which was permeated with the sweet, musty smell of old books. They toted large shopping bags and rolled carts down aisles lined with folding tables. As quietly as if they were in a library, they riffled through cardboard boxes full of books that were arranged by topic: books on California, world history and cooking, children's books, Spanish language books, and box after box of mystery books. They plucked interesting selections from the stacks and showed them to friends or added them to growing piles.

Anne Brisgel, a Santa Rosa resident, had nearly filled a 3-foot tall roller cart with books by noon. An avid reader who has patronized the sales for more than 20 years, she checked her new selections against an alphabetized "bible" of the books she already owns to ensure she wasn't doubling up.

"I love coming here; it's fantastic," she said. "It's the biggest book sale around."

In the popular children's section, Bonnie Raines, a third-grade teacher at the Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts discovered a book called "Who Was Albert Einstein?" which she planned to place in her classroom. It was selling for less than a dollar. "Now that's a pretty good deal," she said. "And there's no $3.99 for Amazon to mail it."

The sale is completely organized by volunteers, said Jackson, 81, who stood near the checkout with Friends President Frank Morabito, also 81. The two men help gather the tens of thousands of donated books, driving to people's homes two to three times a week to pick up donations. A core group of 20 to 25 people does most of the work, he said.

"We're trying to recruit more volunteers," he added.

At the end of the sale, the nicer unsold books will return to the library, to be stored until the next sale. But others will be recycled, Jackson said. There's simply not enough room to store them all. "It's always our hope that we'll have fewer books to recycle."

As he said it, a woman exited the auditorium with an armful of books she'd just purchased.

"Thank you," Jackson told her.

"Thank you!" she replied with a smile.