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A Storied History: The Bookmark Turns 30

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

When the Friends of the Oakland Public Library opened a used bookstore in 1992, it was the continuation of a long tradition of volunteers organizing book sales to benefit Oakland’s libraries.

Today, The Bookmark Bookstore is staffed by about 40 active volunteers and two paid managers, and open to the public five days a week – Wednesday to Sunday, 11am-4pm. This is an amazing operation fueled for the last 30 years by the support of thousands of customers and donors, hundreds of volunteers and the Board of the Friends of the OPL. And importantly, the impact of these efforts is impressive: Sales from 1992 to 2022 total $3 million to support the Oakland Public Library.

To thank our community for its support, we will continue to offer our special 30% anniversary discount every Saturday and Sunday through October, with Friends of OPL members receiving the special discount every day in October. Of course, the discounts will be even greater during The Bookmark's Semi-Annual Sale from October 20th to 23rd.

As The Bookmark celebrates 30 years in Old Oakland, we look back at the tradition of volunteer book sales, the interesting locations where sales were held, and some challenges and triumphs.

The following history is adapted from an article, “Oakland’s Peripatetic Book Sale,” by Genevieve Katz, longtime Friends Board Director, published in the Friends Off the Shelf newsletter in October 2002:

  • 1966: The Friends began holding book sales in the West Auditorium of the Main Library to raise funds for Oakland libraries. The sale was advertised as “Book Sale - books from a nickel to 50 cents.” Although prices have increased slightly since then, you still can find a book for 50 cents at The Bookmark Bookstore.

  • 1972 to 1992: These were the wandering years for book sales. During this period, book sales were staged at borrowed locations. Volunteers lugged books to four different venues – City Center, The Oakland Museum, Jack London Village, and the Firehouse. Old timers may remember the Firehouse, with its oilcloths that covered the books when it rained, and wading around in ankle-deep water caused by its leaky roof.

  • 1992: The Friends established its first permanent bookstore at 815 Washington Street in the Old Oakland district, which was the"original" downtown Oakland. Back in its 19th century heyday, after the arrival of the Central Pacific Railroad, Washington Street had become one of the main hotel, business, and shopping streets, servicing the travelers from Chicago and commuters from Piedmont and San Francisco.

  • 1995: Wandering no more, The Bookmark arrived at its present location at 721 Washington Street, which carries the inscription “Dunns Block 1896” on its capstone. The 1,400-square-foot store features some 10,000 books downstairs on the premium shelves sorted by section, with another 5,000+ upstairs (some destined for online buyers), and that’s not including boxes and boxes of donations on both floors. Imbued with history and charm, evident in its 12-foot front doors, The Bookmark also stands out among bookstores run by library friends groups in that it is housed in its own rent-paying storefront.

  • 2020: As was true for so many businesses, the global COVID pandemic provided a difficult challenge for The Bookmark – how to operate when closed to customers? Because The Bookmark is a stand-alone site with real business expenses, such as rent and manager salary, this was an urgent issue to solve. Fortunately, the Friends’ Bookstore Committee, long-time dedicated manager Phyllis Couillard and many volunteers were up to the task. Co-Treasurers Julie Waldman and Winifred Walters worked tirelessly to apply for and receive a Payroll Protection Program loan as well as several grants, including a California Humanities CA CARES Relief Grant, a Stop Waste Reuse Grant and a California Small Business COVID-19 Relief Grant, together totaling over $45,000.

Meanwhile, even during COVID, the donations to the bookstore didn’t stop. Intrepid volunteers worked in limited shifts to process the incoming donations and to sell books curbside. Photos of many of the store shelves were taken and placed online to create the Virtual Bookstore so customers could shop from home while the bookstore remained closed. And customers continued to shop the bookstore’s online sales of used books on Amazon and eBay. The Bookmark even teamed up with to sell new books online as well, with buyers from all over the country shopping at the site supporting The Bookmark.

Phyllis said: “Keeping the store open with our virtual bookstore and curbside sales during COVID, thanks in large part with help from our bookstore committee members,” was the highlight of a most challenging period. “Once word got out that we were open, we received such great support from the customers, our members and first-time shoppers - the whole community!”

In its 30th year, The Bookmark continues to innovate and evolve. This month as Phyllis retires, the bookstore welcomes a new management team. Sven-Erik Geddes will be primarily responsible for store operations - books, pricing, merchandising, working with volunteers and assigning tasks. Sven-Erik has experience with both the San Francisco and Palo Alto Friends' book sales operations. Laura Guzman will be primarily responsible for recruiting, promotion, and outreach projects. Laura has been a Saturday volunteer for the past few months and has significant marketing experience. Read more about them in this blog post.

With a storied past and inspiring determination to succeed, The Bookmark is a tribute to the many people who have willed its success for more than 30 years. Here’s to all those who love books and love supporting the Oakland Public Library!

Happy Birthday, Bookmark Bookstore, and many happy returns!

Fun Facts

  • Total sales from 1992 to 2022: $3 million!

  • Average volunteer service: six years, but we have five volunteers with 14-25 years of service!

  • Re-donation partners: Eight organizations currently receive excess stock to benefit their constituents, including the Prisoners Literature Project, Community Education Partners, Oakland Leaf, Roots Community Health Center, Better Neighborhoods - Same Neighbors, LifeLong Medical Care, St. Mary’s Senior Center, two Amtrak Stations (Jack London and Emeryville) and four Branch Friends groups.

  • Inventory: Over 20,000 books, not including boxes and boxes of donations, plus LPs, CDs, and jigsaw puzzles.

  • Most interesting online sale: a complete 27 volume set of the Warren Commission Report and Hearings into the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The kicker? It was purchased by someone in Australia!

  • Neighborhood businesses include old-time favorites Doan’s Tailor, Ratto’s Deli, Caffe 817, and Swan’s Market as well as popular newcomers Graffiti Pizza, Beastmode Barbershop, Square Pie Guys, and sweetgreen.



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