30 years and a pandemic later, the Palo Alto book sale still goes strong

STORY BY SAM STEIN, PHOTOS BY EMILY YAO

For the past 30 years, a dedicated group of volunteers from the Friends of the Palo Alto Library (FOPAL) have been maintaining a book sale with a variety of books at affordable prices. The sale has helped fund the Palo Alto City Library, and continues to foster community environments.

Taking place on the second Saturday and Sunday of each month at the Cubberley Community Center, the sale is divided into a children’s room, adults’ room and “bargain“ room.

The book sale itself makes around $100,000 a year for the Palo Alto City Library, and processes 40,000–60,000 books each month. FOPAL supplies the sale solely through book donations by the public. 

FOPAL is a public-private partnership that was established in 1938. The organization helps fund the library; money from fundraisers like the book sale give the library more room to act on its own without approval from the city council.

Books for sale in the children’s room.

Books of all types of genres can be found in the sale, ranging from history and the arts to fiction and business; CDs, cassettes, DVDs, board games, postcards and records are also available. 

“It’s a really great way to find older books, books that are out of print,” long-time customer Jeremy Erman said. “It’s a great resource in the internet age. There are lots of books and resources here that aren’t actually available online, so it’s a way to find stuff you can’t find anywhere else, as there’s a lot of historical stuff that can give you an insight into the past.”

Customers peruse books in the adults’ room.

Customers are also drawn to the book sale due to its affordability. 

“I’m a teacher, and I need books, [but] it’s hard to find books that I can afford,” 4th-grade teacher Melanie Han said. “I spent nine bucks and I got 12 books.”

Due to COVID-19, policies such as restrictive room occupancy and mask-wearing have been put in place to help provide a safer shopping experience.

The pandemic also hit the book sale — a volunteer-only service — hard. Many volunteers stopped returning, and FOPAL has struggled to find replacements.

“More volunteers would be a huge benefit for us,” said Jannette Herceg, FOPAL’s director of volunteer engagement. “Through COVID, we lost about 50% of our volunteers. Not all of them have returned. I’ve spent the last several months recruiting constantly, but we could certainly use more volunteers.”

“We really do need more manpower,” said Margaret, a regular volunteer since 2008. “Some people just drop out randomly without telling us, as a lot of our volunteers are school-age kids or retired adults. It’d be nice to get more people.”

Some referred to the sale as a “great resource,” considering its possibilities for younger generations and parents. As the books are so cheap, and with young readers’ tendency to quickly outgrow books, the sale provides a valuable opportunity for parents and teachers to purchase affordable books that can be easily replaced if ruined by sticky fingers or spilled food. 

Young customer looks through shelf of children’s books.

“All the proceeds go to the library,” Margaret said. “We get so many regulars, and so many children and adults here. Teachers and nonprofits can get free books, too. Books are information — the more we have, the more we can learn.”

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