By Nancy Aldrich-Ruenzel, Bookstore Committee Member
Just mention the Memoirs section to Bookmark Bookstore Manager Phyllis Couillard and she lights up. Her recommendations are as wide-ranging and deep as the rich collections she and her dedicated volunteers curate. A bibliophile who clearly knows her memoirs, Phyllis sold this writer on four of her recommendations within minutes of the start of our store tour.
The Bookmark is the used bookstore operated by the Friends of the Oakland Public Library, and Phyllis has worked there since 2009, starting out first as a volunteer and in 2015 working part-time with a co-manager, then in 2019 becoming the bookstore’s full-time manager.
Phyllis’s all-time favorite acquisition wasn’t a memoir, though. It was David Foster Wallace’s first novel, a signed, first edition – and his first book: “The Broom of the System.” It sold online for $400.
Phyllis cites another rare find, this one still available online and waiting for the right buyer: “We have an oversized, 1986 signed copy of the first edition of The Howl by Allen Ginsburg. He actually drew flowers on it himself,” says Phyllis. Ginsburg’s doodles aside, Bookmark’s used books are in beautiful condition. “You won’t find any underlining or highlighting,” beams Phyllis. Protecting this core value is clearly a point of pride for her and her volunteers. With that also comes an intense appreciation for the value of shelf space. The 1400-square-foot store features some 10,000 books downstairs on the premium shelves sorted by section, with another 4,000 upstairs (some destined for online buyers) and that’s not including boxes and boxes of donations on both floors. Even during COVID the donations didn’t stop. Close to 2,000 books are donated to the store weekly. In 2019, the store processed some 74,000 donations; the store also re-donates to a number of community non-profits as well as Branch Library Friends’ groups. Books that can’t be sold or re-donated go to a local paper recycling facility.
When asked to predict what she’ll look back on as one of her proudest achievements during her tenure as manager of Bookmark, Phyllis doesn’t hesitate: “Keeping the store open with our virtual bookstore and curbside sales during COVID, thanks in large part with help from our bookstore committee members. 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! We made more money than we thought we ever could.” But it was also a difficult time for Phyllis. “When COVID first hit, we had to let boxes of donations sit and that was so hard. I couldn’t touch them -- and that’s all I wanted to do! That’s what I love the most. It’s the treasure hunt.” Phyllis lights up again when she talks about all of the great stories people share with her as they browse the collections or talk to her on the phone about their relationship to a particular book. “It might be a story of when they were a kid, or it might be a collector with a fascinating acquisition tale. I love hearing them all. You learn so much about people!”
Indeed, Phyllis loves the stories. So come share yours at the Bookmark too, and you’ll discover one of the Friends of the Oakland Public Library’s hidden gems: Bookmark Bookstore Manager, Phyllis Couillard. (When she’s not at the bookstore, check out her fine art photography at The East Bay Artists Guild and Café 817 in Old Oakland, this year from October through December.)
Come visit The Bookmark Bookstore in Old Oakland at 721 Washington Street, Oakland. Currently, the store is operating Wednesday - Sunday, 11am-4pm for in-store shopping.