Culture News

How Friends of the Phoenix Public Library Finds New Ways to Sell Old Books

If you want to see what 300,000 books look like, you have only to visit the Friends of the Phoenix Library warehouse. The moment you step into the building, you find a mountain of cardboard boxes filled with books. Wheeled carts are packed with books. Books are piled on every horizontal surface. But the vast majority of books are stacked in neat ranks on metal shelving units. Shelves receded into the distance, filling the vast warehouse with their spines and pages.

And every single volume is for sale.

“There’s something very romantic about browsing all day,” says Alexis Ronstadt, community relations manager for the Friends of the Phoenix Public Library. “But we got too popular for the venue. We’re in transition. We’re looking for some new opportunities.”

The Friends’ mission is simple: Collect donated books, sell them, and give proceeds to the Phoenix Public Library system. For nearly 40 years, the organization has been doing precisely that. But this year they have tried new tactics: aggressive online sales and pop-up stores across the city. They are embracing 21st century commerce. It’s working.

Until last October, the Friends would host public book sales in this very warehouse, located just northwest of downtown Phoenix, a stone’s throw from Greenwood Memory Lawn. If there is any doubt about the lingering popularity of printed paperbacks, the book sales were hard evidence to the contrary. Each event brought as many as 1,000 visitors. The most avid bibliophiles arrived as soon as the doors opened and might buy 200 books at a time. Everyone was happy – the buyers, the Friends volunteers, and especially the Phoenix Public Library. Last year, the Friends grossed $750,000 selling donated books.

But they hit a snag: At last October’s sale, the city received an anonymous complaint. A fire marshal arrived, noticed the warehouse’s limited exits and dead ends, and shut the operation down.

“It was perfectly understandable,” says Ronstadt. “They were right. And the person who complained was probably just trying to park. We used to take up all the street parking and it annoyed some of the neighbors.”

In theory, the Friends could still host sales, and they can still admit a limited number of shoppers. Moving to another location is not an option, because the warehouse is a public building and the Friends use it for free. But the fire marshal’s visit was humbling, and they decided to try new strategies. And in a way, ending the warehouse sales has given Ronstadt and her colleagues a chance to get creative. Which is good, because the Friends are extremely important – not just to Phoenicians with library cards, but to library advocates everywhere.

“Pretty much any library in the Western world has a friends group,” Ronstadt says. “This is going to sound kind of arrogant, but ours is arguably one of the best in the nation.”

The Phoenix Public Library has always relied on tenacious volunteers, ever since a group of women called the Friday Club founded the library by collecting 1,500 books in 1897. As Phoenix’s population has expanded, so has its library system: Today there are 16 branches spread across Maricopa County. The Friends of the Phoenix Public Library was founded in 1977 as a way to raise funds.

One of the most renowned volunteers was Barbara Perry, known to everyone as "Barbie." Born in 1933, Perry worked as a school librarian and rigorously organized the Friends’ stockpile. Perry was still alive when the warehouse opened in 1998. When she passed away a few years later, the Friends named the rear offices the “Barbie Room.”

“She was very precise about everything in her life,” says Benita McWenie, who has volunteered for about six years. “She came from a family of great affluence, so she always felt she should give back.”

“It’s the epitome of grassroots,” says Ronstadt. “We’re very blessed to have a full-time staff of two.” But they also have a part-time staff of eight, a part-time bookstore manager, and roughly 100 volunteers. Companies like the University of Phoenix often send specialists to help out, and local nonprofits regularly donate manpower. The Friends have a permanent store located in the Barton Burr Library, which vends everything from books to DVDs to bookmarks. In contrast, most Friends groups are smaller and more ragtag. 

“A lot other Friends groups are very inconsistent,” says Jason Peterson, the organization’s executive director. “They never get the resources they need.”

Peterson knows this better than anyone: When he started working for the Friends 15 years ago, he was the only paid employee.

As it happens, Arizona has several friends groups. The most active is the Friends of Pima County Public Library in Tucson have raised more than $1.5 million over the past seven years, thanks to similar book sales. (Their storage facility is a barn.) There are smaller nonprofits based in Scottsdale and Tempe, which help the neighborhood library systems.

At first, closing the warehouse to public sales seemed like a major problem. Sure, they had 300,000 volumes, but how would they reach buyers? For the past year-and-a-half, the Friends have been cultivating sales on, the omnipotent online retailer that incorporates thousands of similar affiliates across the country. But they have also built their own website, Books for Good, which not only benefits the Phoenix Library, but other nonprofits as well. Income can benefit a range of organizations, from Fresh Start Women's Resource Center to the ASU Retirees Association, all at the buyers’ discretion.

The vast majority of the warehouse’s 300,000 volumes are on sale, and they cover a wide range of style and value: You could pick up a hardcover copy of the sayings of Confucius for $2.05, or you could procure a geography textbook for $361.19.

There are a good number of Arizonan shoppers who buy from Amazon and Books for Good, but the Friends have found themselves shipping parcels all over the world. Last year, the Friends sold 182,000 volumes to buyers in 102 different countries. They frequently affix shipping labels for such countries as Russia, China, and Turkey. Collectors in distant nations might spend $40 on postal fees for a book that would seem worthless to U.S. readers.

Online sales have completely transformed how the warehouse is organized. For decades, stock was arranged by the Dewey Decimal System, the library standard that orders book by subject. For Internet sales, books are arranged as they catalogued; an inventory code indicates where it is in the store, but the book’s actual topic is irrelevant.

Not every book can be sold. They gather books with broken bindings, wrecked covers, and severe water damage. Unsalvageable books are promptly pulped. There are also thousands of books that nobody wants, such outdated almanacs and programming manuals for computers nobody uses anymore, which are often sold to prisons and other institutions.

But the majority of books are still sellable, and despite the changing nature of publishing and book consumption, the Friends’ market has remained surprisingly stable. Peterson notes that ebooks affect newer titles much more than used books. While Kindle books selling for $9.99 have strangled the prices on new hardcovers, the bargain prices on second-hand volumes generally remain the same.

“We had one of our strongest years last year,” said Peterson. “We want to make sure that we use each donation as efficiently as we can. If a book doesn’t sell in a year, we reevaluate its condition.”

For diehard browsers, the Friends will continue to host sales, but in spaces donated by local businesses. The last sale took place at Paradise Valley Mall, which is also home of the library’s Mesquite branch. The sale lasted about two weeks and showcased between 20,000 and 30,000 books. The Friends plan to continue this collaboration with local businesses, putting vacant commercial spaces to good use.

“What we’ve had to do is take the sale out into the community, rather than invite people here,” says Ronstadt. “The bottom line is, there are definitely people nostalgic for the warehouse sale. But the reason that we sell books is to benefit the libraries, so the more shoppers, the better. I would love to see this grow. The sky’s the limit.”

The next sale will take place on October 24 and 25.

Where again?

“We’re not sure yet,” says Ronstadt with a laugh. “But we should know soon.”

To learn more about the Friends of the Phoenix Public Library, visit the organization’s website.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Isenberg