Business & Real Estate

Los Altos' library sales, a longtime literary gold mine, need a new home

Friends of the Library Book Sale
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
More than 100 local volunteers sort, price and set out donated books at quarterly book sales that benefit Los Altos’ libraries, above.

Attending a Friday-night preview of the Friends of the Library book sale in Los Altos feels like an antiquarian rugby scrum.

The business of books summons an eccentric cast of characters. Part dealer, part zealot, part hoarder, part dilettante, the keenest shoppers snake in a line around the building, sometimes hours before doors open at 6:30 p.m. When the first wave charges into two huge spaces at Hillview Community Center stuffed with donated books, pawing across box-stacked folding tables, some wield specially calibrated bar code scanners. Within only a few minutes, advance runners begin to trail out to twilight parking lots, arms full.

Teachers fill complimentary bags to start new classrooms. Kids lurk under tables, stacking their new selections while the sale rumbles around them. Adults behave like obsessives digging for treasure, sometimes swapping reading recommendations across the rows. In addition to providing a carnival of human eccentricity, and fueling the nightstand reading of a broad swathe of local residents, the quarterly sales contribute approximately $60,000 per year to public benefits at Los Altos’ libraries.

“The taxes that people pay get us basic services,” explained Diane Schmidt, Friends board president. Bonus funding from Friends – $191,000 in total last year – brings Los Altos special features ranging from sponsored programs to the highly popular best-seller collection and upgraded furniture and fixtures.

The next quarterly sale convenes the weekend of Aug. 18 and 19, but this hallowed tradition will be changing next year. Hillview is scheduled to close its doors by May – and the massive book enterprise will find itself homeless until a new door opens.

From library shelves to Amazon

Back when the Los Altos Library operated from a tiny storefront on State Street, it had an equally tiny collection. A group of residents from the American Association of University Women made it their mission to source donated books from the community. In addition to stocking the library’s shelves, they sold the surplus as a library benefit. The first sale, held at Rancho Shopping Center in 1958, netted $146. Within a few years the community’s donations exceeded the needs of the collection, and the volunteers’ efforts turned entirely to receiving donations as a form of fundraising.

By the time the library moved into its own dedicated space, the Friends’ fundraising operation had grown and convinced the city to share part, eventually all, of Hillview’s Room 7 for processing and storing books between sales.

Stevens Family
Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier
Friends of the Library families like Darren and Cameron Stevens’ have grown up among the stacks, adding new volunteers with new generations.

One annual sale grew into the quarterly events that flood Hillview with bargain hunters and local families that have made a tradition out of sifting for new-old finds that track a family’s growth and changing interests. The volunteers also follow a life cycle – Darren Stevens has worked the door to the fiction/children’s sale “for decades” after being introduced to the sale by his wife, Brittany, who had started volunteering with her mother, Shari Emling, at the tender age of 5. The Stevenses’ daughter Shelby, 11, has also been helping at book sales since age 5, now joined by her brother Cameron, 6.

Los Altos resident Elayne Dauber, who operates the main library’s snack kiosk, started volunteering after moving to town in 1984 and said that longtime volunteers become connoisseurs with a sixth sense for sifting trash from treasure.

“A lot of the active friends have been doing a category for years and years, and you can tell a valuable book – you can tell by the paper, by the publisher, by how rare it is,” Dauber said. “But if it’s a new book, we can read the bar code and find out what it’s worth.”

The year-round sales Friends operates from the main lobbies at Los Altos’ main and Woodland Branch libraries have come to exceed the big quarterly sales in turning a profit. Friends also operates a snack kiosk at the main library, which fuels local students and readers as well as contributing $12,000 or more to the budget each year.

The group sorts 200,000 books a year, selling those worth more than $6 or $7 online through an Amazon storefront, with popular books in beautiful condition funneled to the libraries’ ongoing lobby sales and everything else to the quarterly events.

The Friends’ Amazon store currently stocks more than 500 texts and might make $15,000 in a given year, after expenses and paying Amazon’s cut. When the sorters discover a true treasure among donations, worth $300 or more, they offer it via an auction house in San Francisco. As of last week, a massive 1850 Bible was coming to auction. The most famous coup in recent memory occurred when Los Altos resident Darwin Poulos pulled an Albert Einstein text during his routine pricing of physical science and computing books. It was signed by the author himself during a visit to Stanford University – and ultimately sold for $8,500.

“These auctions are online, so we were sitting there, listening to it,” Dauber recalled gleefully.

A changing relationship to the text

Dauber can also chronicle the lengths to which sale-goers extend themselves to scoop up the best books quickly.

“We would have people who would get in line at noon on a Friday, and they would come with binoculars so they could look through the windows and see what books were on the tables where,” she said.

Access to the Friday-night preview sale requires a $10 annual membership fee, which helps cover administrative costs for the group and provides an evening exclusively for book sale super-fans. Because Friends limits the number of books per transaction to 15 at its sales, “hard core” members buy memberships for runners, pull books to hand off and have minions buy armfuls and sprint to nearby cars before returning for another round.

“They have down it to a production line,” Dauber said.

By Sunday, the sale reverts to $5 bags. Some sections, such as children’s books, come close to selling out. Others see their remnants donated to the Salvation Army or other nonprofit groups.

“The whole book scene is changing. You’re probably the last generation, or unique in your generation, in that you love to own books and you love old books,” Dauber commented flatteringly but wistfully to a reporter of apparently youthful appearance who frequents the Friday night sale. “My son, if he wants to read a book, he goes online, he orders it and then he donates it to the Friends. It’s just a different attitude.”

The Hillview move

Schmidt has been meeting with city officials to understand how planning for a new Hillview Community Center will impact the volunteer group’s operations. The cavernous book lair in Room 7 is fated for the wrecking ball. Bookings are closed for big events like the book sale starting spring 2019. And thus far, alternate space has not materialized for donation reception and sorting. The $190,000-plus Friends contributed to the Los Altos Library annually may be dimmed, in future years, if the volunteers can’t continue their work at their current scale, which has been unusually city-supported.

“We had the benefit of the city providing adequate space for us for a very long time – we’ve been in the community 60 years,” Schmidt said.

The smaller footprint of the new Hillview center has been exclusively earmarked for city programs. As a nonprofit organization, Friends of the Library doesn’t fit that current direction. City staff have been evaluating whether the city could accommodate storage sheds somewhere else on civic center land for the 120 book boxes a week Friends gathers from the community to resell and recycle. Friends-type operations elsewhere often function out of a library itself, but Los Altos’ main library is already viewed as suffering from a lack of adequate space.

The city of Los Altos has scheduled an open house next month to reveal the newest design for rebuilding the Hillview Community Center.

For more information on Friends of the Library, visit losaltoslibraryfriends.org.

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