In 1992, the Friends chose to abandon its vagabond ways and adopt a permanent site for its fundraising booksales. The group chose 815 Washington, next to Ratto’s and the now-popular Cafe 817. It was large, easy to find and situated atop what seemed like a rising tide in Old Oakland. But it made no money.
The site was dark, unattractive and, based on the model of the roving sale, every book sold for a measly $1. The Friends’ revenue at the time ended up consisted solely of memberships and interest earned from a hefty grant FOPL administered for the Library’s homework program and to help set up the Library Foundation. Donations to the Library averaged around $30,000, less than half our current giving. As the private grant expended, the interest earned dropped too. FOPL was facing “up or out”, either the bookstore made money or the group would find itself with a very thin purse.
In late 1994 then-Library Director Martin Gomez asked Nancy Colbert, the Library’s volunteer coordinator, and a private business consultant, to help FOPL develop a new vision for the bookstore. The Board and Nancy formed a working group and reviewed several sites in and around Old Oakland as potential new venues. 721 Washington was it. It was smaller than 815, but with some work, it could be turned into a much more pleasant site. FOPL made a considerable investment in tenant improvements to gussy it up, a significant decision given the group’s restricted revenue at the time, but the decision had to be made to invest and succeed, or dwindle.
The improvements included painting, sawing, hammering, toting and fetching, all kinds of work. A number of other volunteer groups helped out, including a student group from Skyline High. FOPL had to move the entire book stock, with shelves, down to the new site a block away. So near, yet so far for such a huge inventory.
Then-board members Alice Mercer and Henry Hirsch were key. They spent long days and evenings overseeing the packing and the sorting and the shelf measuring and everything. Alice’s clipboard became infamous. One volunteer jokingly referred to her as “drill sergeant.” Henry’s service as an engineer lent a precision air to the job.
Professionalizing the decor would mean little if it wasn’t all overseen by a professional manager. FOPL needed someone who could run the new Bookmark as a business, not a funky hand-me-down.
Fortunately, Bob Frey entered the picture. He brought both retail experience and the knack for people that anyone managing a volunteer staff must have. Bob’s sterling stewardship has made the bookstore he Friends’ key fundraiser, as hoped.
The last piece was building a bookstore committee to help Bob develop the store, involving both board members and volunteers.
This was tricky. As General Ulysses S. Grant said, two generals on the same side on a battlefield is one too many. The bookstore committee therefore focuses on long-term business development, not day-to-day management, as a complement and support for Bob. The committee’s store volunteers provide energy and reports “from the field.” The volunteers have a voice in the store’s development (and the board has a way to recruit some right onto the board, but don’t tell them that.)
This is why, ten years later, the upcoming anniversary looks sweet indeed. It’s a testament to faith, perseverance, work and vision. It deserves a pat on the back.