Living a Fantasy

by Taffy Cannon

I live every reader’s fantasy, every week of my life.

I run a bookstore that turns a $100,000 annual profit.

Even better, it’s risk free and tax-free.  The space is provided, the stock is donated and the labor force is volunteers.  I’d have to be a dithering idiot  not to make a success out of it.  The only catch is that all the money goes to the library, but that’s what I signed on for.  Since the Library Friends Bookstore first opened in 1999 (way back in the 20th century) managing its operations has been one of the mainstays of my life.

I know a lot of booksellers currently in the business, and I’ve known many others whose independent stores weren’t able to meet the economic challenges of big box discounting and online no-sales-taxing.  Without exception, these people were compelled into the business because of a love of the printed word and a desire to share that passion with others.

I came in through the back door, though I share those attributes.

For the past three decades, I’ve been deeply involved in Library Friends organizations and the sale of secondhand books.  In the beginning, those sales were outdoor affairs on overburdened tables, with frantic customers scooping up boxfuls of precious finds.  My daughter, who attended her first sale when she was three months old, always loved the part where the adults came running in, swinging sharpened elbows, empty boxes dangling from both hands.

Then in 1999 our library opened a big new building with a dedicated bookstore, and somebody needed to set it up.  Oh darn.

Nobody had consulted us about fitting it out, and some of the choices made on our behalf were a bit bizarre.  The checkout desk took up a quarter of our already-limited square footage, with a couple enormous chairs behind it.  A band of magazine display shelving ran around the entire circumference of the store at waist level.  Our work/storage area had lots of shelves but no work tables.  Also, though I didn’t notice right away, the workroom had no ventilation.  And for some reason we’ve never been able to control our store temperatures, which range from Antarctic blizzard to Brooklyn pizza oven.

No problem.  I switched out the shelving to put all the magazines together (what a concept!), got the desk scaled down, and kept the chairs, which were comfortable and have actually held up better than anything else in the store.  I kept the chair in the workroom, too, even though it’s ridiculously out of scale for the space.  When I want to sit down back there, that’s exactly what I have in mind.

Our workroom is long and narrow, with an odd little dogleg off one end, and you need to be really close friends if two folks intend to work in one end at the same time.  Our limited shelf space means we have to price everything to move, so very few items cost more than $2.50 and three large carts of recent bestsellers sell at a buck apiece.  We’ve been blessed with great volunteers and volunteer coordinators, and year after year, the doors stay open for nearly forty hours a week.  Many of our volunteers are still in the original shifts they signed up for in 1999.

In many ways we are like any other secondhand bookstore, though our nonprofit status is intentional and we have no cat.

Our stock varies with the vicissitudes of donations, and comes in sufficient quantity that library staff and additional volunteers do the preliminary sorting and boxing.  Anything that can go right on the library shelves does. It makes no sense for us to sell a current bestseller for $3.00 so the library can apply that to a twenty-buck shelf copy.  But beyond that, we’ll sell pretty much anything in the media family: books, magazines, DVDs, audio books, CDs, puzzles.

Because we’re located in a fairly affluent community which is also a retirement mecca, the quality of our donations tends to be excellent.  We get bestsellers still bearing Costco stickers, CD libraries now ripped to MP3s, current magazines, and the occasional well-thought-out personal collection whose owner has passed away or moved into smaller quarters.

We’ve made some effort to change with the times, never my strong suit.  We now sell more of the unusual or high-end items online, and have replaced earlier Silent Book Auctions with four seasonal sales of exceptionally nice books.  The Holiday Book Boutique, which began just last Monday, brought out swarms of shoppers who have learned they can get quality, as-new books for every picky person on their list at a fraction of big box prices.  It also made four grand in its first day, all for the library.

As for me, I guess I’m just a book junkie, blessed with good book karma.  Sometimes just thinking about a book will cause it to show up in a donation box, and titles related to current writing projects also appear, including ones I’d never heard of before.  Often I learn about new authors or titles via the donation bin, and when I am lucky enough to happen upon an exciting previously-unknown-to-me author with a backlist, a lot of times those books will turn up once I start watching for them.

I don’t do a lot of hands-on selling, since that seems to require charm on demand, a quality I have in short supply.  I also stay away from the cash register.  Indeed, I tell people that not handling money is a condition of my parole, which usually shuts them up.  I like to hang out in the back room, opening each new banker’s box of donations with a sense of wonder and anticipation about what might be inside.  I price and sort, sort and price.  I set things aside for mega-sales. I watch to see when a category isn’t moving and needs to go on sale.  I answer questions when I can and make nice with library administrators and functionaries.

The bookstore calms me when I’m keyed up, cheers me when I’m depressed, and surprises me each and every time I open a new box of donations.  In fact, every box is kind of like Christmas, without the fruitcake.

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7 Responses

  1. I love it!

    Our library used to have a weekly sale in the atrium, which I miss, now that there’s an ongoing bookstore, instead, but I certainly understand how and why it’s easier on the people who run it. The prices are higher now, but I have no idea whether it earns more money for the cause than the old movable shelves.

    As a reader, I loved coming into the library for my usual visit and walking out with marked-down mysteries (usually) that could wander back on their own schedule, rather than the library’s. Those were the books I’d take on vacation or give to a friend.

  2. I can feel my blood pressure going down just reading about these books–old or newish–and your creative library. Can’t imagine volunteering in a better place!

  3. How nice to hear of this! Our public library ditches all donated books for about 25 cents even when brand new and even when they don’t have a copy.

  4. It’s nice to catch up with you again, Taffy. I got a nice photo of you at LCC-Monterey. Did you ever see it?

    Your library store sounds like a wonderful place. Good work!

    Pat Browning

  5. I hope you winnow the books properly; I once acquired a first edition of A.A. Merritt’s THE MOON POOL for a quarter and flipped it for $65 to a book agent. Just sayin’. I plan to volunteer for our local library once I’m retired for a staff card and half hour by myself in the basement once a week .

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