Last Spring, the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library committed to opening a neighborhood bookstore.
Setting up a new business is complicated. Last Spring, the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library committed to opening a neighborhood bookstore. The Friends have always sold used books, but it was an unwieldy, labor-intensive, time-consuming operation. On Monday afternoons, we removed boxes and bins of books from closets in the Community Room at the back of the Library and set them out on folding tables. We had to reverse the process four hours later. Then we did it all over again, Monday after Monday. We charged ridiculously low prices because it was more of a book giveaway program, a literacy outreach program, than a store. Importantly, the sale also recycled books, saving them from landfills and incinerators.
Despite the low prices, we collected money to support Library programs, help maintain the building and to supplement the Central Library’s allocation for new books. The Gently Used Book Sale was a beloved Chestnut Hill institution. Truth be told, the main reason we had to stop the sale was the death of Reneé Polsky, the fine lady who provided the energy, leadership and love that made the project work. We miss her a lot. And the Library misses the revenue.
Bowman Properties wanted a tenant for the first floor of a 19th Century building on Bethlehem Pike, a block east of Germantown Avenue. A deal was struck. In exchange for a quality bookstore, Bowman Properties, the owner of 84 Bethlehem Pike, agreed to offer an attractive lease and to help rehab the space.
How on earth do you establish a viable bookstore in the 21st Century? You need lawyers and accountants. You need to file forms with the local, state and federal government. You have to buy software and computers, arrange for utilities and internet business tools. You have to get three different kinds of insurance. You have to rewrite the organizational bylaws. You have to get shelving and the proper lighting. And you need to employ someone to run the operation. We are betting that our investments will pay off. We are convinced that there is a demand for books because they offer a uniquely wonderful experience. We love books and know that you do, too.
By far the easiest part of the process has been obtaining the inventory. It’s hard for independent bookstores to compete with the giants like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Even those big corporations operate on a knife-edge of profitability because of the many media competitors on the internet. But they must buy their inventory - we don’t have to. We want to save the books and you don’t want to throw yours away. In October, we ran three, four-hour book donation events. We collected thousands of volumes, far more inventory than can fit in the 20 massive wooden bookcases that we have attached to the newly painted walls. Small teams of dedicated volunteers have been sorting and categorizing the trove ever since. We could go faster if it weren’t for the Covid restrictions. Once we shelve the current collection, we will ask you for more books. It’s our intention to continually refresh the inventory to entice repeat customers.
The photo above shows the completion of one of our tasks. We took off our masks momentarily so you could see how happy we are. I am holding an empty box. James, our store manager, is holding the portable Point-of-Sale terminal that came inside. The little gizmo connects to the credit card companies, the bank, the taxing authorities. It prints receipts and connects to our inventory database. It’s a cloud-based system with open architecture. It took a lot of research to find suitable technology at a price a cash-strapped 501(C)(3) can afford. For James and me, opening the package was like opening a present.
There is still a great deal of work to be done before we can greet you as a customer. The day will come more slowly than we like because the pandemic restrictions limit the number of people who can be working together in an enclosed space. Besides, there would be little point in opening a store until the pandemic risks significantly abate. Please be patient.
For information about the Friends, to volunteer or to donate, go to https://chlibraryfriends.org.