Used-book sales bring in money for libraries

Voorhees library managers Chris Entwisla (left) and William Brahms organize a book sale - "good for the Earth and good for the libraries," said a book-sale veteran.
Voorhees library managers Chris Entwisla (left) and William Brahms organize a book sale - "good for the Earth and good for the libraries," said a book-sale veteran. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff)
Posted: October 12, 2012

The first bargain-hunters show up at 7 a.m., long before the Voorhees library opens, and form a line that grows to 250 and snakes around the building.

Cashiers and security guards are ready for the rush when the doors are unlocked, while other staff look over a balcony at what's been compared to the running of the bulls in Pamplona.

The attraction: more than 45,000 used books and thousands of CDs, videos, books on tape, LPs, and magazines, spread out on 70 tables across the Camden County Library System's M. Allan Vogelson Regional Branch on Laurel Road.

"It's like Black Friday, only kinder and gentler," branch manager William Brahms said of the twice-yearly sale, to start at 10 a.m. Thursday and run through Saturday. "If people get pushy, they're asked to leave."

Over the last decade, libraries across the country have seen a significant increase in used-book donations from patrons, estates, and baby boomers downsizing as they enter retirement and smaller living quarters, officials said.

Adding to the used inventory are volumes from libraries divesting of physical books to meet their clientele's changing preferences.

Library managers and booster groups say they're benefiting from a "golden age of used books," with revenue from resold items adding to the institutions' coffers by as much as $50,000 a year.

"It's golden age for readers, too, because there's so much to choose from," said Marcia Warner, immediate past president of the Public Library Association, a division of the nonprofit American Library Association.

The increased donation of materials "has been a boon" to libraries that sell them for a fraction of their cost, said Warner, director of the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Public Library.

"In the last three years, we've gone from $12,000 in sales to $18,000 to $26,000" in Grand Rapids, she said.

The rising sales come as many book stores - chains and mom-and-pops - have closed and people have turned increasingly to e-readers and the Internet for their reading and reference needs.

At the recently renovated Ludington Library in Bryn Mawr, a room permanently set aside for used-book sales will open soon.

In Center City, the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia has two stores - the Book Corner at 311 N. 20th St. and the Next Page at 722 Chestnut St. - where sales are brisk. The second site opened in 2010.

In Burlington County, the Mount Laurel Library has a used-materials sale four times a year, and an ongoing sale in the lobby of the building and online. The sales raise $50,000 a year.

Reusing items is "good for the Earth and good for the libraries - if you don't get tackled on the first day" of a sale, said Joan Serpico, manager of special projects at Mount Laurel, with a laugh. "It's a similar mentality to Black Friday.

"People can be enthusiastic, but they can't interfere with other peoples' purchasing," said Serpico, whose library is holding its next sale from Oct. 25 to 27.

The larger crowds at the Vogelson sale became noticeable about two years ago. "That was the first time I saw 200 people line up," Brahms said. "The numbers have been increasing every year."

One reason for the growing popularity of the sales is value. The average used book typically sells for $3 or less.

Many volumes are in excellent condition and come from people who are relocating and don't want to pay to move them, librarians said. Their tech-savvy children have laptops and e-readers, and often aren't interested in their parents' collections.

But a loyal group favors used volumes because they're uncomfortable with electronic media or because they find e-book downloads pricier. Usually, about 10 percent of a sale's items have been retired from the library's collection, which increasingly offers e-books.

"Many feel the absence of Borders and Barnes & Noble," said Christine Steckel, director of libraries for the Lower Merion Library System.

Book chains have gone bankrupt or shrunk for several years as their profits have fallen. Barnes & Noble in Jenkintown's Noble Square shopping center, a landmark for decades, will close at year's end, it was announced last week.

Brick-and-mortar "venues for books - the commercial markets - have been decimated, and we provide a place where you can still browse" items, Brahms said. "A lot of them are in pristine condition."

A steady flow of donated material comes to the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia's locations, said Irv Ackelsberg, the Friends' chairman of the board.

"People come with 20 to 30 boxes of books at a time," said Amy Dougherty, executive director of the organization, which supports Friends booster groups at 52 of the city's 54 branches. "Our donors are interested in sustainability and recycling."

The Book Corner will have a sidewalk sale on Oct. 19 and 20, with all volumes selling for $2 or less, Dougherty said. In the store, trade paperbacks are $2 and hardbacks $3. Books at the Next Page are of slightly higher quality and range up to $20.

Eagle-eyed dealers travel from sale to sale and use apps on their cell phones or tablets to wand the items' bar codes and determine - through online databases - the profits to be made by selling them again.

"I see them go through books, from table to table, in seconds," Brahms said.

"This is another economy, a way of living for some people who look at this as money," he said.

Helping those dealers - and bargain-hunting readers - are websites such as, a subsidiary of that provides an online marketplace for new, used, rare, and out-of-print editions., owned by a resident of Richwood, Gloucester County, provides a state-by-state list of hundreds of library book sales and independent book store locations.

"The book world has been in flux since the 1990s, ever since the Internet came along," said Richard Davies, a spokesman for AbeBooks, based in Victoria, British Columbia. "There wasn't any change in centuries and now there's change all the time.

"But there are still people who love physical books," he said. "They want to hold and touch them."

For those who plan their calendars around library sales, the thrill of the hunt is part of the lure.

"If you know what you are looking for, you can find it fast on the Internet," said Scott Stepanski, owner of "But at a book sale, you find all kinds of unexpected treats."

Those discoveries should draw patrons to the used-item store in the basement of Ludington Library, part of the Lower Merion Library System. Profits go toward programs at the facility, which reopened in September after a multimillion-dollar expansion, said head librarian Margery Hall.

"Before we closed, we brought in between $15,000 to $18,000" a year from the items, Hall said. "I anticipate that we'll be doing better than that in the future."

In Voorhees, Brahms is prepared for Thursday's start to the branch's fall event. Sales at the library bring in more than $35,000 a year.

"We have it down to a science," he said. "It's all very well planned out."

Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or


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