Western Pa. libraries find success in used book business
By Tony LaRussa
Published: Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
For more than three decades, the Mt. Lebanon Public Library raised extra money to buy materials and help pay for programs by urging residents to donate used books, CDs and videos for its “Twice Sold Tales” book sale.
But five years ago, library officials put an end to the popular sales. “We got to the point where we were renting an 18-wheeler (trailer) to store all the donated items and a U-Haul truck to move them,” said Cynthia Richey, the library's director.
“It became such a big operation that we really couldn't handle it anymore,” she said, so the library turned the twice-a-year sales into an everyday affair.
Earlier this month, library staff and volunteers celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Book Cellar used book store inside the library on Castle Shannon Boulevard. Several other libraries across Western Pennsylvania supplement their incomes and distribute older and donated materials with used bookstores and sales.
In Mt. Lebanon, “We set up the bookstore in an alcove in the library that was basically useless,” Richey said. “And it has been an extraordinary success. We went from making between $40,000 and $50,000 from the two book sales we held each year to nearly $85,000 a year.”
The bookstore, which carries about 8,000 items, sells rare books and speciality items it occasionally receives on the Amazon.com website, said David McKibben, who helps to coordinate a team of 126 volunteers who staff the Book Cellar.
“Over the years, we've received some books of greater value than your typical used book would sell for, so we decided to create an online presence to sell them,” he said. “We've shipped books to Austria, Japan and the Czech Republic.”
Some of the items sold online include a first American edition of Leo Tolstoy's “Anna Karenina,” a 51-volume set of Civil War correspondences printed in 1910 and a first edition of, “A Confederacy of Dunces,” by novelist John Kennedy Toole.
Other local libraries are in the used book business, too.
“We opened the Squirrel's Nest bookstore two years ago in a former storage room in the library's lower level after one of our board members went to a meeting where they discussed ways for libraries to generate income,” said Beth Mellor, director of the Oakmont Carnegie Library in Oakmont.
“Our staff thought it was a great way to reuse extra materials in our collection and some of the many items that are donated to us,” she said.
The bookstore generates about $800 a month, which is used to buy materials for the library, Mellor said.
“Everything is so expensive these days, including new books and other materials for our library, so having this extra revenue has really given us a boost,” she said. “And the bookstore has actually turned out better than we expected because it's become a little gathering place for the community.”
About 10 years ago, the Brentwood Library decided to allow patrons to come in and browse the roughly 5,000 items it stores for the monthly book sales it holds.
“Some people can't make it to the book sales but still want to buy items,” said Dennis Luther, the library's director. “So we organized the items we keep in a lower-level multipurpose room and let people go down if they're interested in looking at what's available.”
Sewickley Public Library leaders have considered establishing a year-round used bookstore, director Carolyn Toth said, but space is an issue. Toth said used book sales at various times of the year are successful and officials will continue to discuss a permanent used bookstore.
In Dormont, the amount of work needed to host the Dormont Public Library's annual three-day book sale prompted leaders in 2009 to put about 2,000 items up for sale on shelves in a corner of the library, said Cindy D'Agostino, the library's director.
“We make about $1,200 a year from it, which isn't a lot, but every bit helps,” she said.
“People like to be able to peruse the books, and some will even ask us to hold items on a specific subject if we get them, which we're happy to do.”
Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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