The Joy of Books
Planned Parenthood’s Annual Used Book-a-Thon Shines Again
By Jean Yamamura | September 9, 2021
If Planned Parenthood were to write a manual on How to Run a Used-Book Sale, chapter one would be titled “Volunteers.” For the past 47 years, the Santa Barbara branch has held a hugely successful autumn book sale through the help of its dedicated volunteers — roughly 200 of them. All year long, people work at the nonprofit’s Goleta warehouse, offering their time, talent, and muscle to sort, categorize, price, and sometimes reject the thousands of donated used books that members of the community have dropped off at the Red Shed. It’s an enormous project.
The Red Shed, which sits outside the warehouse, is open all year long to receive the boxes and bags of books — even during the 366 days of the 2020 leap year. The 10-day used-book sale, which will open on Thursday, September 16, at the Earl Warren Showgrounds, is highly anticipated by book lovers around the Central Coast.
Last year, during the height of the pandemic, the sale was held at the Goleta warehouse under strict health precautions. But even though it was shortened to only a few days with a limited number of people allowed in at a time, loyal customers patiently waited for hours in lines that snaked around the building for a chance to buy books at very low cost.
Pandemic precautions will be in place again for this year’s sale when it returns to the showgrounds, this time in the large exhibition hall. All entrance and exit doors will be kept open, fans will run constantly in the high-ceilinged space, face masks will be required for volunteers and shoppers alike, and vaccinations are mandatory for the volunteers working there.
One the left, volunteer Alan Kasehagen leads a group known as the “schleppers.” On the right, Jeanette Mustacich (left) and Sandra Eacret sort and stock used books. | Credit: Erick Madrid
The McCord Annual Book Sale now puts 100,000 volumes into happy readers’ hands every year and is considered to be the largest used-book sale between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Because more volumes are received than can be sold, the books are re-donated to Boys & Girls Clubs, American Indian tribes, schools and libraries in Africa, and even Little Libraries in the community. “The book sale gives books a second chance,” said Tia Blickley, one of the three co-chairs for this year’s book sale.
The sale generates about 10 percent of the tri-county group’s $3 million development budget, which supports a new Oxnard Clinic as well as providing health-care services for any man or woman who needs them. Chief among Planned Parenthood’s clinic services in 2019-2020 were health exams that detect early cancers, information about and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, birth control information and services, breast exams and PAP tests, and hormone therapy for transgender patients. Abortion only made up about 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services.
Not only books are placed in the Red Shed by the box- and bagful. Games and puzzles were plentiful this year, said Teri Brown, last year’s co-chair and now an online sales co-leader, so Earl Warren will have a new games and puzzles section, as well as a boutique of craft goods made by artistic volunteers. Woodworkers, jewelry makers, knitters, crocheters, and quilters are among those who donated their handmade items, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the medical-care nonprofit.
The sorters occasionally find an item that seems inadvertently left behind in a box, including a high-quality set of German wood-crafting tools that were found in a box one year, and an expensive watch and gold chain. The volunteers always put such items safely aside, in case someone returns to claim them.
Alan Kasehagen leads a group known as the “schleppers.” True to their name, the half dozen or so volunteers do the bulk of moving boxes — heavy and light — from the Red Shed to the sorting tables. There, books are placed in broad categories such as biography, fiction, science, and so on. From those roughly sorted boxes, volunteers put them into narrower topic categories.
For the last two years, because of the coronavirus, instead of working all together in large companionable groups, the volunteers came in shifts of one to do the sorting work.
The books destined for the sale fill three 40-foot containers, and Mammoth Movers is hired to heft all the boxes, shelving, and tables and take them to the showgrounds. Once there, the “category owners,” one or two people responsible for individual genres, will set up and restock throughout the sale.
Before 1974, Planned Parenthood’s annual fundraiser had been a rummage sale held in their parking lot in downtown Santa Barbara. Noticing that many great books were always donated and were popular with shoppers, the volunteer fundraising team decided to take a chance that a book sale could be successful. It turned out to be a great idea, and today, it is only the second Planned Parenthood book sale in the country. The other is a 60-year-old book sale started by volunteers in Des Moines, Iowa.
Mary Jane McCord, after whom the tri-county book sale is named, was among that early group of Santa Barbara volunteers. Her dedication and leadership became the heart and soul of the fundraiser until her death in 2002. In the early days, McCord would store the tons of books in her garage, while each year, volunteers had to search out vacant State Street storefronts to house and sort the books and to hold the sale.
This plan worked until one year, they could not find a vacant storefront. In 2003, Warren Hall was rented, and a warehouse was donated on Gutierrez Street for year-round sorting and packing. A few years ago, the book donations began to outgrow the capacity of the downtown warehouse, and in 2016, the volunteers and the hundreds of boxes of books moved to Goleta.
One the left: Christina Schowe stacks organized books into a shipping container that will make its way to Earl Warren Showgrounds. On the right: Volunteer Donald Polk works in the “special books” section of the Planned Parenthood book warehouse. | Credit: Erick Madrid
Aside from the autumn book sale, one of the most fruitful book-selling avenues has turned out to be Amazon Books. Many forget that today’s gargantuan online retailer started out in 1994 as an online bookseller, literally from Jeff Bezos’s garage in Bellevue, Washington. Co-chair Blickley said they stumbled across Amazon as a retail source in a lucky accident. A few years ago, a volunteer noticed a leather-bound copy of a Boy Scout manual on the giveaway/throwaway pile, and commented, “I’ll bet we could sell that on Amazon.” Sure enough, it sold.
Blickley sorts the self-help books, and more than once, she has run across titles that turn out to be from a limited print run and have great online value. “You just can’t judge a book by its cover,” Blickley said, laughing. Now, every bar code on a book is checked against Amazon pricing. But that doesn’t mean Amazon gets all the good books.
A favorite location among experienced book-sale browsers is the “specials” table that holds beautifully illustrated books, rare volumes, or books with other attributes that signify extra value. One year, the table held a first edition of The Little Prince, one of 250 copies printed in English in the months before the author, French pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, died while flying a reconnaissance craft during WWII. It sold in the middle four figures, Brown recalled, dinged for a torn dust jacket.
And it’s not just the specials table where shoppers can find hidden gems. About a decade back, someone bought a first-edition Hemingway for a few dollars and later sold it for thousands. After legendary clarinetist Artie Shaw died in 2004, the last of his eight wives donated his books to the Planned Parenthood book sale, complete with Shaw’s penciled notations, remembered Kasehagen. They set up an “Artie Shaw” table that year, which became one of the most popular at the book sale.
For most salegoers, however, the treasure is the quantity and variety of clean, used hardcovers and paperbacks. Clearly designated tables are neatly packed with cookbooks, children’s books, novels, mysteries, art history, travel, sports, photography, and computer books, and even some foreign-language books — all available for $2-4.
But no matter the quantity sold, the volunteers seem to have an endless back catalog of more books to put on the floor. “From opening night on Thursday to the last weekend, about 90 percent of the books held in the back room have been moved out,” Blickley said. “We are constantly replenishing the tables.”
She recalled how entire tablesful of books have disappeared at times. When the Claremont colleges were setting up a new architecture school, they bought all the art and architecture books one year. Another time, a Montecito couple bought an entire category to populate the shelves of their new library. And someone once bought all the cookbooks left over after the sale ended, she said.
News of the sale spurs more people to donate books, Blickley noted. They have just begun stocking the new donations in the warehouse, getting ready for the next year’s sale.
Wacky Book Titles
Inevitably, the book sale sorters start cracking up over some of the titles they run across. Here’s a selection:
• Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved
• How to Live with a Neurotic Dog
• My Cat Loves Me Naked
• The Sex of a Hippopotamus: A Unique History of Taxes and Accounting
• Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s
• The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank
• The End of Self-Help
• Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
• You Suck: A Love Story
• Poetry for Crazy Cowboys and Zen Monks
• How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents
• Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason
• The Second-Worst Restaurant in France
• Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir
• You’re Only Old Once! A Book for Obsolete Children
• Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes
• Advanced French for Exceptional Cats
Only books in good condition are sold, and the volunteers riffle through every volume to make sure pages aren’t missing or marked up. Often, they find bookmarks, usually from the bookstores where the book was originally purchased, some from stores all over the county, and some from stores long gone. These bookmarks are put by the cash registers and offered for free to customers as they are checking out. The odd airline boarding pass or birthday card occasionally falls out, likely used as a convenient bookmark, but one time, the sorters found a few carefully pressed marijuana leaves. Another time, they found “quite a stack of dough” in a book of quotations, about $350 altogether, the volunteers said. But the winner of the best left-behind gift had to be the $600 they found in a book about money.
More Ways to Support Planned Parenthood
The Annual Book Sale has a fee agreement with Amazon for access to prime shipping for its supporters and participates in the AmazonSmile (smile.Amazon.com) program. Any purchase made through AmazonSmile can send a half percent of eligible purchases to a charity of the buyer’s choice, funded by Amazon. Planned Parenthood California Central Coast (PPCCC) is among the charities listed.
Book donations can be made directly at the Red Shed located at 5726 Thornwood Drive in Goleta. And financial gifts are welcome at ppcccbooksale.com and at plannedparenthood.org/planned-parenthood-california-central-coast/donate.