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When Chris Smith hits the BookOps factory floor in a sprawling Queens, N.Y., warehouse every day, he is focused and methodical. Listening to thumping music, he and his colleagues painstakingly sort through as many as 200 books a minute with each tome going to one of New York City’s library branches.
The books come off a 238-foot-long conveyor belt at breakneck pace as Smith — drenched in sweat by mid-day — works his craft.
Today, however, wasn’t just any ordinary day. On Tuesday, Smith and his roughly 200 team members came to work with their eyes on the prize. They came to defend their title as the world’s fastest book sorters in a yearly contest between themselves — representing the New York Public Library System — and a squad from the King County Library System in Seattle.
The contest began five years ago when Seattle developed and installed a state-of-the-art mechanized book sorter that greatly increased its daily production. Not to be outdone by their peers in the Pacific Northwest, New York then installed what they said was a superior machine and, consequently, a rivalry ensued.
The teams came into Tuesday’s heavyweight bout tied 2-2. The contest is one hour long and the rules are simple: The team that sorts the most books wins.
Minutes before stepping into position, Smith said he knew what was at stake — a golden trophy and bragging rights.
“It’s hard to keep that pace but that’s what we’re here to do,” said Smith steps from the floor’s conveyor belt. “We're here to top Seattle.”
With thirty minutes to go and a crowd of staffers cheering them on, the team plowed forward on a record breaking pace. Most were visibly drenched as they set to keep stride.
As time expired, the counting began. The final number — 12,371 — fell just a few hundred short of Seattle’s total. The Emerald City beat out the Big Apple on this day.
Jamal Charles stood nearby as the results were announced. Known by his peers as The Fastest Sorter on the East Coast, he spoke of the competition in a nostalgic tone. He is getting older — and the frantic pace of his job means he just may be slowing down.
Still, he feels he and his teammates are the “Navy Seals” of the library.
For Smith, he knows they’ll be back stronger than ever next year.
“And as long as people are still reading, we're still gonna have something to do,” said Smith. “And we'll do it here.”