Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 29
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
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Turning Lemons Into Lemonade: Library’s Used Book Sale Is a Winner

Ellen Gilbert

“And then, the unexpected happened,” wrote Princeton Public Library Director Leslie Burger in her description of the transformation, a little over a year ago, of the library’s flagging gift shop into a space for its ongoing used book sale.

Numbers talk. The “unexpected” included the fact that in the first month, used book sales went from $2,000 to $4,500. “In the ensuing months,” wrote Ms. Burger, “sales continued to climb averaging $5,500 per month, an amount almost equivalent to the annual store sales profit.” Eliminating salaried employees and outlay for purchasing gift store stock were also a boon.

Success is Sweet

“People love this,” said Friends of the Library Council member and book sale co-chair Sherri Garber. “You see them bring their friends to see this ‘great thing.’”

Gale Cengage, a global provider of innovative teaching, learning, and research solutions obviously thought it was a great thing, too; at this year’s annual American Library Association (ALA) conference they presented Ms. Garber and co-chair Eve Niedergang with a framed citation and a check for $2,500, in recognition of the library’s “sustainable fund-raising” effort.

Ms. Burger, who is herself a former ALA president, nominated the project in a report she entitled “From Lemons to Lemonade: Creating a New Revenue Stream in a Down Economy.”

“We were feeling pretty dejected about the gift shop,” commented Ms. Burger. “We really wanted it to succeed, but we were victims of the economic downturn. People weren’t coming to the library to go shopping for presents.”

Ms. Garber and Ms. Niedergang did not know each other before they began working together on the book sale. Now that they’ve become fast friends, they finish each other’s sentences — often with an assist from Ms. Burger — as they enthuse about their work.

“It’s great because we’re providing wonderful books for the community,” said Ms. Niedergang. “It keeps everything out of the landfill,” noted Ms. Berger, while Ms. Garber pointed out that there are used books for everyone “from ages 2 to 90.”


Donors may ring the bell and drop off their used books at a door adjacent to the library’s rear entrance, or leave them at the circulation desk, preferably after calling the library to ensure that they are suitable for resale. Each donor receives a receipt they may fill in themselves. A link on the library’s website ( offers more details, including a phone number to call for information about donations.

The books are eventually moved to the library’s third floor “penthouse” (read: very utilitarian storage room,) where volunteers sort and price them. Since this is Princeton, a lot of extraordinary books — autographed first editions, university press books, sets of classics — are received. Many of these are set aside for the Friends’ annual book sale, which will take place this year October 22 through 24. Others are relegated to “Stuart’s shelf,” for book sale manager Stuart Mitchner to examine.

“The downside to donations is the task of dealing with books that are unsaleable,” according to Mr. Mitchner. “Law books, text books, most encyclopedias, and, especially, books in poor condition put a real strain on our volunteers.”

It’s a reciprocal business: if donors are serious readers, so are the book purchasers, who tend, according to Ms. Burger, to borrow and buy more non-fiction than is typical of most other libraries. Nor do customers separate book-borrowing from buying; one simply follows the other.

If recent New York Times best-sellers, and great cookbooks for under $5 aren’t enough incentive to come in, the library is currently offering a “ten-for-ten” deal, where the purchase of $10 worth of books will guarantee ten free music downloads.

Ms. Garber and Ms. Niedergang are clearly unfazed by the growing interest in electronic reading gadgets. They say that the well-placed, well-stocked used book area, which was the brainchild of Ms. Burger, attracts “a lot of teens, university professors, maintenance people” and scores more. While counting on finding a specific title may be a chancy proposition, a feeling of serendipity — the fun of the find — makes a visit to the well-organized space a pleasure.

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