Valdosta Daily Times

February 18, 2013

Becoming the ‘Lady Who Brings Books’

Quinten Plummer
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — The Lady Who Brings The Books, brought 500 recommissioned texts to a class at W.G. Nunn Elementary School, according to totals tallied of last year’s donations.

She’s not a common caller of Chryse Thomas’ classroom, though the book lady says she’s been collaborating with the teacher for nearly seven years, and the students understand that Mrs. Sue brings the books. In fact, Sue Raffaele, “the book lady,” says she has visited the class twice as herself and once under the guise of everyone’s favorite reindeer.

“I explain to her what I think should happen, but Chryse works with the class everyday and has a better idea than I of what works and what doesn’t,” says Raffaele.

The only thing she asks is that the teacher reinforces the donated books with some positive example, such as holidays and extended weekends. But sometimes, says Raffaele, the students get a book simply because it’s Tuesday.

“They’re constantly going through the books that are there,” says Raffaele. “I bring extra books so that the last child to choose still has a selection to pick from. And trust me, those kids are starving for those books.”

It began in a backyard, this book-buying business. A conversation between Raffaele and a neighbor birthed the bounty of books that would be bestowed upon Chryse Thomas’ classroom.

“We were out in her backyard and we were talking about school things,” says Raffaele. “She had to go out and buy her kids a treat for something they’d accomplished in school. I said you ought to get them books, and she just kind of looked at me. She knew far better than I did how much books cost for children, but she let me buy the books for them near the end of the school year.”

As the summer progressed, Raffaele pounded all paths to produce a collection of low-priced books for the pupils in the class.  

“I looked for ways I could buy books without taking out a major loan,” says Raffaele. “I haunted every bargain table in South Georgia. I swear. Ultimately, I found what the best bargains are here in Valdosta. The Goodwill sells books for a buck. How can you go wrong with that? Some days, I come home with none and other days I come home with a dozen. It all depends on who turned in what.”

Used books are acceptable, but they must be hardcovers, says Raffaele. She says she takes home the best, cleans them to a polish, and then tags them with a sticker that reads, “I am a W.G. Nunn” reader.

“For a child, there’s nothing like having your own book, not one you borrowed from the library or the school or that you have to read at school,” says Raffaele. “It’s important that they have the luxury of reading their books more than once or reading it out loud to a family member or friend.”

Retracing the roots of Raffaele’s relations with reading would land one in Western Pennsylvania, back to the time of her childhood. She had plenty of pals and mates to play with, but books soon became her best buds during her childhood in Butler.

“We were challenged to find reading material,” says Raffaele. “My town, which was a sizable town, had no bookstore. So we depended on the library, the book of the month club, and whatever the school had available to buy books. The drug store had some book, the office supply store had some books, but there was no bookstore.”

The child of a teacher, canons of classics were consumed on command. Raffaele read what was required and read on her own, revering the writing of authors like Alcott and Poe.

“I always looked forward to the first week of summer because the local library would allow us to check out 10 books at a time, instead of the two they normally allowed,” says Raffaele. “So I made sure my mother was there the first day. I’d zip through my books and ask to be taken back for more.”

She was impressed and moved by a mate of her mother, a librarian with access to the town’s stockpile of books. She got to work in this building where there were all of these books, and she could read any of them that she wanted, Raffaele says.

Sue and husband Bob, now a retired store manager, moved to Valdosta from Miami 30 years after their money was made. It was her first real experience with the South, she says.

“I could not, understand, these people,” says Raffaele, partially in jest. “In person, I was fine because I had context, but conversations over the phone was tough at times. I’d ask them to repeat what they were saying and they’d just say the same thing louder.”

She wanted to start volunteering, but said the she suffered setbacks when she sought someone or some group to assist.

“When organizations need volunteers, it seems to be easier for them to call the Boy Scouts or some other group than to solicit help from individuals,” says Raffaele. “So I thought to myself, I’ll do my own thing. And that’s what this book program stemmed from. I have since hooked up with volunteer groups, but it answered a need for me to do community service. I have a passion for it.”

Look out for people who have a passion, she warns, especially if their efforts are eschewed or ineffective. Some people play golf, she says, and some people draw art, but Raffaele searches for books.

She looks for covers that crack, and she culls soft-covers from her stack. Books covered in cursive are commonly encountered, though teeth-cratered covers comply with her code.

This is Raffaele’s passion, reading and pushing books back to Valdostans. It’s the luck of the draw, she says of her searches, because you never know what you’re going to find.

“In a pure academic sense, reading is vital to all other subjects,” says Raffaele. “But it’s not just another subject. It’s something you can do all your life and still enjoy it.”