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Fill Minds, Not Land

In hard times, many local libraries and charities lean on book donations.

When most people think of bookstores, they think of places that sell books, not places that give them away. But in little more than a year Half Priced Books, which has three Bay Area locations, has donated one million books to Feed the Children, an international organization that combats illiteracy as well as hunger.

When it comes to literary charity, local bookstores like Half Priced Books have proven quite generous. In addition to their Feed the Children donations, local HPB stores run an annual campaign to ask their customers to donate used books to the Oakland Children's Hospital. In its fifth year, the program delivers to hospitalized children 10,000 books annually, rolling them from room to room on bright red carts.

Often the books become part of the treatment, says Kirk Thompson of Half Priced Books. Speech therapists use them to help patients re-acquire reading skills lost due to injury or disease. Children also get to take their books home upon leaving the hospital, which leaves the program in need of fresh supplies each year.

"Each January we're down to our last few boxes," says Thompson.

Community bookstores have also allied with local libraries, as was the case earlier this year when the Oakland Public Library's $700,000 acquisitions budget was frozen for the first half of 2003. "The most immediate effect was the inability to purchase new bestsellers," says librarian Dana Heidrick. Heidrick added that little-known authors whose books sell under 100,000 copies were unlikely to be purchased at all, reducing the depth of OPL's collection.

With over 300,000 regular borrowers, OPL has a difficult time meeting demand in the best of times. Heidrick says OPL tries to buy one copy for every five times a title is reserved, and some popular titles such as "The Da Vinci Code" require over 50 copies. That's big money for the cash-strapped OPL, which earlier in the year contemplated closing over half its branches to cut costs. (After public outcry, however, none were closed.)

With few options, Heidrick in March created a wish list through Amazon.com and asked patrons to "Buy A Book" for OPL. The idea caught on and now numerous bookstores across the Bay Area help customers donate to OPL.

Diesel, a trendy bookstore tucked into Oakland's flourishing Rockridge district, displays books in high demand at Oakland libraries and encourages customers to buy and donate them at a 30 percent discount.

"Diesel is practically across the street from Rockridge Branch. Book buyers are library users," says Heidrick. Other Oakland bookstores such as Second Edition and Laurel have strengthened connections to their local OPL branches with the Buy A Book campaign.

Instead of working with existing community bookstores, the San Francisco Public Library has built its own. The Friends of the SFPL established Book Bay bookstores at the main library in Civic Center and at the Fort Mason Center. Raking in close to half a million dollars per year, The Book Bays are big business for the library. "The San Francisco library system certainly wouldn't be able to run the programs it does without our assistance," says director of book operations Byron Spooner.

Run mostly by volunteers, these bookstores are simple, featuring little more than piles of donated books that mostly sell for $1 apiece. In addition to raising much-needed funds, the Book Bays function as community outposts for FOSFPL.

"The stores give us a year-round presence in the community allowing us to promote our sales, events, membership, and solicit and collect donations," says Spooner. That presence has translated into over $30 million for the SF public library system in the last decade.

In the end, however, these programs wouldn't function without people donating their used books instead of trashing them. That squares nicely with one of the core ideas behind Half Priced Books, according to Kirk Thompson: "We try to fill our minds, not our land."