Part I in a series on outstanding volunteer-run assets in the Capital City
Bibliophilla: is it wrong? We know who we are. Candidates all for Book Readers Anonymous, OverReaders Anonymous or various other actual support groups for unrepentant addicts of the written word. Juneau’s the right town for our kind because here we have a much loved community resource: the Amazing Bookstore. That’s its real name. And it is Amazing with a capital “A.”
Located in the Airport Shopping Center, the Amazing Bookstore runs on the efforts of over ninety part-time volunteers who sort, shelf, organize and sell a constantly changing selection of about fifty-thousand books. Seven days a week; all year round there’s an ebb and flow of books in, books out. It’s rarely crowded but steady with customers roaming the shelves from open to close. Unless marked otherwise books are fifty cents. Don Quixote to Donald Trump, How to Get Out of Debt to How to Catch Shellfish, Che Guevara to Danielle Steele they all come and go. Popular or special interest books may sell for a dollar or more. Occasionally someone donates a rare book which a volunteer will look up online and then sell at a reduced rate. There is no cash register and no credit card machine. When you buy your books the volunteer at the sales desk writes down how many and gives you change. People commonly drop the change in the donation jar. After picking up half a dozen great books for less than the price of a latte you feel like you can spare it.
For a few dollars binge readers can buy an author’s whole body of work to study how he or she evolved (or not) over a career. Michael Crichton’s technical nerds against the primitive world, Carl Hiaasen’s wacky south Florida comedies, C.S. Forrester’s Hornblower series, Will and Ariel Durant’s epic Story of Civilization in eleven massive volumes… they’re regulars at the Amazing Bookstore. And then there’s the children’s section! You remember those books that you loved as a kid? Even old ones like, “Katie and the Big Snow”, “Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel,” “Shell Silverstein.” and “The Railway Children,” show up there along with age appropriate educational materials. Other parts of the store boast shelves of books you might bring on vacation, read on the plane and leave at the beach house—romance novels, sci fi, young adult, ecology, westerns, war, comedy, biographies, classics, natural history and Alaskana. They also sell CD’s, DVD’s, books on tape and puzzles.
Most non-fiction books are arranged by category. Most fiction is arranged by author. Neat and organized as it is, the titles aren’t cataloged in a computer. Long-time volunteer Nancy Barr likens it to beach combing. She credits the store’s vast array of books to our community being “isolated with so many educated, eclectic, interesting people. And their reading habits reflect who they are.” And who we, as a community, are.
Origin of the Amazing Bookstore**
I hate to condense this because it’s a great story but the short story is, today’s store began with Friends of Juneau Public Library volunteers holding annual book sales in the mid-1980’s to find homes for library books discarded due to wear, age or the fact that no one borrowed them. Sales were popular at 25 cents per book and $1 per grocery bag of books but it was a huge effort for the volunteers to get the books from storage, set-up tables, sell the books then take everything down and return the unsold books to storage.
In 1989 the Friends moved into a 10×12 foot space in a mall. Rent was cheap and there was less packing/unpacking but part of the deal was that the store had to be open daily from noon to three p.m. and six p.m. to nine p.m. Donna Denton, co-vice chair of the Friends and a dedicated, multi-talented woman, took on the role of volunteer coordinator. As word got around, people began asking asking if they could donate books from home. Over the next ten years the Friends relocated six times with all the work that implies. During this period a tourist who found the place and liked it mailed the Friends a letter, she didn’t remember the name so she sent it to “The Amazing Bookstore.” This being Juneau, the letter arrived, people appreciated the novel address and that’s how the bookstore got it’s name.
In 2000 the Amazing Bookstore found its present home. Originally it was two thousand square feet including a drop-off room and storage/work room. But the books kept coming. When the shop next door moved out the bookstore added that space which doubled their floor area overnight. Today, even with the extra room, books coming in can exceed books going out. To save those books volunteers worked out an agreement in 2013 between themselves, World Wide Movers, Alaska Marine Lines and Thrift Books in Seattle. Twice a year World Wide Movers—for free—picks up the overflow books (which was about six hundred Xerox boxes-full last October) and brings them to Alaska Marine Lines which takes them—for free—to Seattle. Thrift Books sells the books and returns half the net profit to Friends of the Library in Juneau.
It’s unusual for an organization of this size to operate without even one paid position but everyone seems to get along, each sharing their unique talents and ideas. A number of people have been working there for decades and are a community within the community. Decisions about day to day operations are made, with input from others, by a six person committee of volunteers. All of the money is turned over to the Friends of Juneau Public Libraries Board which does the accounting and designates the money.
How Amazing Is It?
Any of the items below could be an article in itself. The Amazing Bookstore:
- donates all profits over operating expenses to our public libraries and promotion of public literacy.
- donated over a million dollars towards building the new Mendenhall Valley Library.
- supports library programs, kids events, authors events and furnishings
- offers CBJ educators any books they need, that are under a dollar, for free.
- donates a serious number of books for inmates at state prisons as far away as Nome.
- volunteers partnered with Juneau physicians to send boxes of medical texts to the University of Medicine in Mandalay, Burma where they were in short supply.
- places books at various places accessible to the traveling public.
- has kept hundreds of tons of books out of the landfill.
- takes/sends books to/from other communities in Southeast Alaska.
- is always looking for volunteers. This doesn’t have to be a big commitment, some volunteers even live in other communities and work a few hours when they’re in town. People willing to do fill-ins are welcome and the store works to match volunteer interest with what needs to be done.
Information about the Amazing Bookstore including hours and criteria for book donations is listed here: www.friendsjpl.org/amazing-bookstore/ .
**Thanks to Nancy Barr for answering my questions and for sharing her article, “An Amazing Bookstore” published in American Libraries, January, 2004; 35,1: pg 60-62.