Patrons & Partnerships

Ep 35: Friends of the Library with PJ van Blokland and Ellen Smith

October 13, 2022 Library Partnership Branch, Alachua County Library District Season 1 Episode 35
Patrons & Partnerships
Ep 35: Friends of the Library with PJ van Blokland and Ellen Smith
Show Notes Transcript

Thanks for joining us for another episode of Patrons & Partnerships, presented by the Library Partnership Branch of the Alachua County Library District.

Our guests today are PJ van Blokland, the President of the Friends of the Library; and Ellen Smith, the Vice President of the Friends of the Library and a table coordinator responsible for hardback fiction. We discuss the history of the Friends of the Library and the booksale, what FOL does with the proceeds from the sale (and the leftover books), and how you can get involved.

Friends of the Library:  https://folacld.org/ 
Volunteer/Membership: https://folacld.org/m%5Embr.html
Booksale Information:  https://folacld.org/m%5Esale%5Edates.html
Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/FOLACLD/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/folacld/

Visit the Alachua County Library District website to browse our collection and to find other resources and services offered at your favorite, local library!

You can view a transcript of this podcast on ACLD's YouTube Channel.

[music]

Tina:

Hello, welcome to Patrons & Partnerships, the podcast presented by the Library Partnership branch of the Alachua County Library District. Today, our guests are PJ van Blokland and Ellen Smith from the Friends of the Library. Welcome.

PJ:

Thank you. Ellen: Thank you.

Tina:

And if you don't mind taking turns, would you please introduce yourselves to the listeners?

PJ:

Yeah, I'm PJ van Blokland. And I would love to have the van with a small v. No, I enjoy being here. Thank you.

Ellen:

I'm Ellen Smith. I'm with Friends of the Library. I'm a table coordinator for hardback fiction, and have been serving as Vice President of the organization to PJ's President of the organization.

Tina:

Well, that's a great segue into the next question, because I'm sure people would like to know what you mean by table coordinator.

Ellen:

[laughs] Tina: So if you don't mind talking about who - what is and who are the Friends of the Library? Friends of the Library is an all-volunteer organization. I'm very proud, we all are very proud of that. We support literacy projects and the Alachua County Library District in areas like materials acquisition, special programming, activities and items that are not covered in the library's regular budget. A table coordinator receives those donations - whether they’re books, art, videos, vinyl, bibles - at our particular subject table, assess the book, see if it's in good enough condition to sell, decide on an appropriate price, and make it presentable for our twice yearly sales.

Tina:

How many members are there currently?

Ellen:

We have about 350 members, maybe about half of them are working volunteers; the others are non-working volunteers, and we welcome them very, very much for their support. A working volunteer, like PJ, may be a sorter and have a three hour shift once or twice a week to receive books from the community. And then we work during the book sale, also three hour shifts, one or two during the sale. We have some non-weekly volunteers at the book sale who just work the book sale. And then of course, we have members who support us through their membership, but they're unable to come to the book house and put that time in.

Tina:

So do the volunteers such as PJ and yourself, do you work all year round?

PJ:

Yes. Yes, we do - let me add a little bit. When, when we get donations, we sort them out into the various subject matters, like a table coordinator, and we have I think 60 different subject areas. So we're pretty bloody busy. We will also need more volunteers because it's hot, we have very little air conditioning. We have none in the big building. And so a few of our more, shall we say, ladies that don't - oh, that's the other thing. The majority of our volunteers are ladies. I don't know what the percentage is, but I doubt if 15% of us are male. We cannot do without ladies.

Ellen:

We also can't do without the men, because the ladies don't lift [laughs] so much. PJ helps me move these big heavy boxes. And one of the considerations for people who aren't able to volunteer, who join as members but aren't working members, the main book house is not air conditioned. In the summer, it's hot; in the winter, it's cold. If someone isn't in good shape, physically, it's challenging. Tina: Hmm. So that sort of limits our membership. But we're looking for anyone, everyone who'd like to help us with making progress here toward a good book sale and being able to donate funds to the library.

Tina:

So let's go back a little bit because I think some people may have - and I, I believe I also have this perception - that the Friends of the Library, there are a lot of ex-library employees. Is that true? Or is that how it started, or… ?

PJ:

No, I don't think they're very many from the library itself. The library gives us huge numbers of donations. Probably - [laughs] we're not always pleased when you get tea chests full of books that you've got to clear immediately because they come to pick up the empty tea chests. But they're a good bunch, they really are.

Ellen:

Friends of the Library was started in 1954 by predominantly a group of women who, as I said, wanted to wake up the community to the need for improved library funding and services. So it started small as I guess in 1954, there were a number of women's organizations that were looking toward specific causes and a library was this one. They were founded in ‘54. The first book sale was in 1954. I think they worked for about a week. Now we worked for six months, but they worked for a week. They sold about 200 books and they took in $84. Tina: Wow. PJ: [laughs] But it was a community interest group that started FOL. Tina: Hmm, okay.

Tina:

So it's been going that long. That's quite an endeavor, and it's been so successful.

Ellen:

When we moved into the book house, the - this permanent bookhouse for, since 1954 to 1989, we were sort of nomadic or vagabonds from 1954 on to 1989. With, with the Junior League, we bought the current facility that we're now in. And it was a huge warehouse. We could store everything there, we didn't have to move it, we could have the sale there, people could identify us there, we could store organizational materials. It just was a really nice purchase on our part. We've now expanded into the, what was the Junior League thrift shop, which is air conditioned. So those of you who want to volunteer in an air conditioned space, we have that now. But it's been a really positive move for us. Instead of selling 200 books, we have almost 500,000 items, books and tapes and such for sale each book sale.

Tina:

I remember when I first moved to Gainesville, 1985, the book sale was held down the street from my apartment. I believe it was 3rd Street, the building that - I don't, I'm not even sure it's still there. It was on University Avenue, kind of across from where the library is now, PJ: Hmm. Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. and near the Matheson Museum, but on the other side of University, and it was so lovely, being able to just grab a box, walk two blocks, PJ: [laughs] fill the box and then walk home. But now, when the book sale happens, you have to be mindful of going north or south on Main Street, because there are so many people attending the book sales. So you've talked a little bit about some of the types of activities that FOL is involved in. Can you go into a little more detail about some of those activities - ? PJ: Could I help just a little bit with that? We’re not the only ones that help the library itself. There's also the Board of Trustees and also the foundation. So we're part of that, all of us with - if we have money, we give to the library. So we're not just by ourselves supporting the library. And I think that's very important to have that.

Ellen:

I agree that it really is a wonderful community effort for the different boards and the different volunteers that are here. Friends of the Library, as I was talking earlier to one of the librarians, one of our projects is to fund classes that current librarians here take to help them work toward their Master of Library Science degree. So we have an educational assistance program. We help with the Snuggle Up and Read program that all students enrolled in Head Start in Alachua County are given an age appropriate, interesting book that they can take home and have for themselves. We, for the Alachua County Library District, support various literacy programs, the Author Series summer programs that the library has, the quiet reading rooms that have been now put in a number of the newer and the refurbished libraries.

PJ:

And Snuggle Up and Read is pretty big, about $15,000 is the latest one. The Foundation gave a lot of that; we gave something too. It's a wonderful program, and you probably have it here as well.

Tina:

Now, are you talking about the snuggle centers or the Snuggle Up and Read, going out to the Head Starts?

Ellen:

Friends of the Library supports the Head Start related programs. The Foundation supports your facility in the library - Tina: Does the - [crosstalk] the Snuggle Up centers and the teen centers. Again, and Friends of the Library has helped with the quiet reading rooms.

Tina:

More when I worked in Youth Services as librarian, but even since I've come over to Library Partnership, I've done it, but gone out to the Headstart schools and done programming with Linda Boyles. We've had - it's just been such a great partnership. I think I've done it maybe four or five times with her now. And to see the kids, their faces light up when they receive the books and they understand that it's something that they get to keep and take home with them and share with their families. It's - It's magical. So. PJ: Yeah. I want to thank you for doing that because it's, it's really one of my favorite programs. And I was wondering, because of COVID, a lot of these things were sidetracked or put on hold for a bit of time. So can you talk about how COVID impacted what you do and how you've adapted?

PJ:

…Go ahead.

Ellen:

I remember sitting outside in the FOL parking lot - because we were not getting close and in an enclosed area early on in that time - trying to decide what to do and various volunteers came up with this BOB program, Bag of Books. Since we couldn't interact personally or one on one or up close or in a building, members devised a way to order a bag of books, a category - mystery, fiction, children's - online, pay online, drive up through the parking lot. PJ was our director of traffic, getting people into the different parking spaces. PJ: [laughs] Yeah, that was fun. So that you can order online and pay online. You'd show up, be directed into a slot, tell the person who you were - we had amazing organization, I just applaud our volunteers - to get those items to the car, put them in the trunk or the backseat, and off they went. It was just amazing. We did have to initially certainly stop any interaction with the community bringing donations in. And then we had to be careful not to get too much because when the pandemic came, we were just getting ready for the spring sale. We were full, we were packed, we had no room for anything. And we just had to carefully figure out how to allow the community still to bring items here. Everyone cleaned out a closet. I'm sure you and everyone else in the community cleaned out closets and brought us books and art and tapes and records and things. So it was a tough slog. But this Bag of Books - B, O, B, BOB, was a real inspiration. And because of that, and because we were forced into using credit cards, we now can accept credit cards at the book sale. And that has been a wonderful plus for us. PJ: [laughs] This is worth pursuing.

PJ:

Because it's obvious - everybody, I don't carry cash, no one does anymore. And it was just so astonishing. But once we realized - if you've got a credit card, you spend more than if you use cash. It's just incredible what we've done, and I think two thirds of our sales now are with credit cards.

Tina:

What was the response? Did you get any feedback from patrons after they, you know, received their bag of books? What was the response with the materials that were selected for them?

PJ:

I think they're pretty content, weren’t they? Because as Ellen said so eloquently, they were divided into categories, even, even cooking, so that they knew what they were getting as well as - and it was run by two military people, man and wife, wonderful volunteers.

Tina:

Are they still with you?

PJ:

Yes. They run the sale. Ellen: Absolutely, absolutely.

Tina:

It's funny that you talk about using credit cards now. Similarly, you may know, the library did not have mobile printing for years and years and years. And we were just about to implement it when the lockdown happened. And so when we came back a couple of months later, we actually had mobile printing, and it's made such a huge difference in people's lives. So, you know, there have been innovations that have happened, because you've had to sort of think outside of your normal parameters. So what else has come out of - you’re back doing in-person sales, correct? PJ: Yeah, yeah. We're talking about the book sale? Yes. PJ: Can I just start off with, one, it's so - you get to know them.

PJ:

There's a couple of favorites there. There has been, this will be our 20... This will be their 22nd sale, a couple that come every single day of every sale, and they're even older than I am. So that's a joy. And the other one that's my favorite is that my estimate in the last two sales is that about 45% if not a half, depending on the day, of the people buying books are people below 45 years old. And there’s one, there’s one - Ellen, you don’t see them much - there's one I think the young lady comes in, and there's another baby every time she comes in with - and it's, it's so, so delightful. It's great fun. There's, they’re my two things on the - young people.

Ellen:

One of the things that I guess I do need to be sure everyone remembers or knows, we've always - all the time I've been with us - we start on a Saturday, we'll start Saturday, October 22 this year,

for our fall sale:

We always have a long line. And now because we have these two separate areas of the building, we have two entrances. Each entrance, based on health guidelines, we now have limited occupancy. So not everyone is going to get in right

when we start at 9:

00. The line moves fairly well except for that maybe 9 to 10,

9 to 10:

30 period of time because the people who are at the front of the line absolutely want to be there and they stay for a while. Shoppers need to know that probably if they're not gung ho gotta be there first thing, come later in the day on Saturday, come a little later on Sunday. Other times, you can just walk right in still, but we do have limited occupancy. So there could be some waiting. And there are two entrances and you can't go between inside, you have to go in separately, so the lines are for each entrance. So that would be something to think about.

Tina:

So you don't limit - you just limit occupancy. You don't limit, there's no time limit on - Ellen: There's no time on it.

PJ:

It's hard to, because we're crowded, but it's an excellent point, yes. Tina: Right.

Ellen:

we have people that that come on Friday and stay overnight

so that they are first or in the first 10 of the people who get in at 9:

00 in the morning. A lot of them have special interests, such as collector's corner, or a particular history section or manga comics or -

PJ:

God, yeah. Ellen: There are people who do come and stay overnight to be sure they get in early.

Tina:

Can you talk more about Collector's Corner? What types of items are in there? And where do they come from?

PJ:

They're the ones that, you look and - there are a lot of Florida stuff. And there are some, we had Hemingway that was signed by him. So it's not put out in just classics. It's locked up. It was put in the safe, actually. Do you want to tell them how much we got for it? Ellen: [laughs] No, I do not. Righty ho, otherwise you think we have a lot of money, because look at question six. What do we do with the proceeds? We'll avoid that bit [laughs] for the moment.

Ellen:

We can answer that in a minute. Collector's Corner has our rarer books, first editions; we certainly have a good Florida section. We have all kinds of vintage fiction and nonfiction. Recently, we had first edition, The Dream Keeper by Langston Hughes and Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens. We had a signed Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, and we had a Beatles’ vintage record that, that we sold. But there are all kinds of things in history, young adults, children, classics, just those things that are rarer, and more than our usual 25 cents to $4 price range.

Tina:

So the person that volunteers or the people that volunteer in that area, do they have some expertise or knowledge about rare items? PJ: Yeah. They do, particularly children, old children's books that go back to the 1800s. The illustrations on those, they're so beautiful, we don't do that anymore. And there's a chap - you hardly ever see him - but he comes in at night and looks after them. Oh, that sounds interesting. [laughs] And the children's corner also, I was, when I was arranging the interview, Sue Morris particularly mentioned to ask questions about the children's corner.

Ellen:

Debbie Phelps does - and, and her crew. I mean, it's a large table, many, many helpers. The children's table has a fantastic supply of picture books, board books for very young kids. They have nonfiction sections, they have sound books, activity, coloring books, pop-up books, they have easy readers to get little beginner readers started. And then chapter books for your older children, fairy tales, poetry, just a really extensive section that then, the table next to that is young adult, which has everything you can imagine there too. PJ: [laughs]

Tina:

Well, I think - something that, it's not on our list of questions, but that the listeners might be interested to know is the cost of the items. If they go into the book sale, it really is very reasonable - the pricing. I mean, you can go in and get a box of books for a very reasonable amount of money. And so for someone who has young children and they want to go in and explore the children's table, they could get, you know, 20 books for the amount that they might actually pay for two or three retail.

PJ:

Easily, easily. And when we have our 10 cent day, Tina: Yeah. which is the day before we close, you can imagine how things get cleaned up. But then the children's books, they go pretty fast. We're restocking during the sale all the time.

Tina:

So how do you price from day one through the - it’s four days, correct? PJ: Five days.

Ellen:

Each table is different based on what a reasonable price would be for a book sale that's raising money for the library. Our prices can - while some things are 10 cents very, very small little things are sometimes 10 cents - based on the condition of the book, the original price of the book. You can imagine a children's book, for example, could be very expensive or very - the National Geographic readers aren't that expensive. Things cost from usually 25 cents to $4. And that could be you know, a $35 hardback book for $4. Something that just came out in 2021 or 2022. The table coordinator has a sense for what is reasonable for those people who are coming and looking. We want to get books back in the hands of the public. We want the children to have little readers. We want students taking algebra for the first time to have an algebra resource. We want someone who wants to read a history book on a particular topic to have that book, either a reference book or a school book.

Tina:

If you have - and you probably do have books leftover after the sale - do you just cycle those back into the next sale? Or do the books have a shelf life… ?

PJ:

The day after the sale, any charity that has a 501-C3 can come in and help themselves to whatever they like. Quite a lot of prisons come and take it. Actually, I've just discovered Goodwill could come now. And I think that's an idea we might think about. So we do try and clear them out. Yes, not as many as we would like. But we still have them. I won't tell you where the others go, if you don't mind. Tina: [laughs]

Ellen:

Agencies that deal with young children or community housing, anything that's literacy-related or service-related, take a lot of our our books.

Tina:

That's very generous.

Ellen:

At no cost. Tina: That’s great. And so all of the materials come from donations,

Tina:

is that correct? PJ: Yes, yes. And how do - how would someone donate? I mean, I know you mentioned you can donate directly to the bookhouse.

PJ:

Yes. The other one is, there's two great metal coffins outside. They’re permanently out there. And the poor people who come in on the first shift, that's me, you have to empty them. We have two huge green coffins that are usually full. So that's, that's open 24 hours a day, seven days a week if the place isn't open. Otherwise, when they are open, there are two shifts, as Ellen said, the morning and the afternoon shift at 9 and 9 to noon, and then noon to 3, you can donate and drive past. Golly, let's do a bit about donations. We've been getting books from Cedar Key, Georgia, Jacksonville, and some of them come in with one of these Dodge Ram things loaded with books that are - even I can hardly lift, they may be 40 boxes on the things. So it's coming from Georgia. Tina: [laughs] It's - so we're not short of donations. And the library, of course, donates as well. They, they remove books from their shelves. And they, if you put them all together, would be jolly nearly as many as the others. So some of them come back, of course. Some of the donators, they've got the price that we wrote on the year before or two years before. So it's recycled. But it's friendly. I mean, really, we started off with friends, we are friends. It's astonishing. I'm looking for someone to dislike, and I can't find one. It's, I mean this. It's a lovely place to work. And we'll get on to the volunteer opportunities in a moment. But I - it's really amazing.

Tina:

It's interesting to me that the books would come from Jacksonville or Georgia. I mean, I know other library districts, other - in other locations have their version of the Friends.

PJ:

They do. And they come from all over and literally Georgia, as indeed do many of our customers.

Ellen:

Our Friends of the Library sale is very well known. We have a very large sale, we do have different sale notices online for people to see. We're known in the southeast United States. We’re one of the biggest book sales. Other libraries and Friends groups have one day sales or two day sales, and you can put books in a bag, and I don't even have an idea of the number of items they have. But we have been just so fortunate that the community does give us a lot of books. And we may make jokes about “oh, no, here's some more books I have to put - take care of these,” PJ: [laughs] but we're so grateful for them. And the fact that the community comes in and buys these books, whether it's we're going to have a fall sale, whether it's for Christmas gifts, we have little Christmas books, whether it's something for kids for the holidays, the community is so good about knowing what, knowing that we're there and supporting us and coming in buying these books and keeping them out of the landfill. PJ: Yeah. We want to get them back in people's hands.

Tina:

Well, and recycling, there are so many books that are going out of print that some of the materials that you have at your sale may not be available anymore unless you really searched for them. PJ: Yeah, yeah.

PJ:

There’s one - sorry. Go on. Ellen: That's another, that's another plus for the collector's corner, because that's where you'd find something like that. There's many of the really big libraries will also - there isn't room in the Alachua County Library District - would sell all the time they're open, so you can just walk in and buy. Any place I go when I travel, I always try and take a photograph of the libraries, see, just to bring them back. So it's a different, but - oh, by the way, Shanie Livingston is responsible for being so successful with it. Marvelous. Absolutely. She is somebody else, absolutely superb. So that - that will be a little different.

Tina:

So how can community - how can individuals become involved as volunteers and in any other capacity that you may need assistance? PJ: Well, we've got that - we have a, we have a person that trains anybody. They, if anybody wants to, they can walk in, they get, they get a paper handed to them and they fill out the stuff. And then, oh, our next training session is in September, is it not?

Ellen:

Maybe. I’m, I’m not sure. PJ: I think it is. So they are trained and they're supervised to start off with.

PJ:

As you go in there you will be, there's somebody when we offload the donations, somebody there will be to guide and sit with, or stand with, the person in charge of that shift. Was that coherent?

Tina:

Mhmm. I understood what you were saying. PJ: Okay, okay, jolly good. But that and that really helps. And that's, that was a new thing done by a lady who, three years ago just joined us. And she's, she's transformed this very, very well indeed. She's very good. So that helps them when they come in. And very few, the average it would seem to me will be, we'll get, maybe we get 10 people who get trained, and then almost immediately, a few will drop out. But then that's life.

Ellen:

It is hard when someone is looking for a volunteer opportunity and comes to the book house. Admittedly, it is not climate controlled. And it may not be for you. But we welcome everyone to come look at what we have, go through the training. Not everything has to be a working three hour a week job. You could work the book sale, you could work in an air conditioned part of the book house perhaps in a book sale, you can just be on a committee. You don't have to lift books, if that's not what you're comfortable with. We also, you can come to the book house to get a membership application. But we are online, we have our website, folacld.org, that has membership information on it. Click for that. We're really close to being able to set up for online payment, that's coming soon. We have - again, we keep crawling into the modern age with credit cards. And so we're, we're looking for that. So come by the book house, see what's there, see if it's something that you're interested in. And then we have a lot of non-working members who support us, support our programs, support the library through their membership. They'll come to the annual meeting, perhaps, which is inside in air conditioning. So a lot, a lot of choices there.

Tina:

Is there anything that you would like to add?

PJ:

Ellen?

Ellen:

I just encourage everyone to come to the book sale October 22nd to the 26th. As PJ said, Tuesday, everything that's left is half price. And on Wednesday, every item is a dime. Now, the collector's corner is closed on that last day. Bring your shopping carts, go shopping for school or your home library. We appreciate the community support. It keeps us going.

PJ: I would like to end my comments by saying:

Please emphasize friends. It is astonishing. I've said this at least twice already. It's a wonderful bunch to be and in I think largely I like it better because

PJ:

it's, it's mainly females, and I married one. So it seems a nice thing. Ellen: [laughs] If it was full of men, I wouldn't be there.

Ellen:

We've had a lot of men joining recently. So it makes a nice balance.

Tina:

That's nice.

PJ:

Sure. Tina: I've never heard a negative word. As long as I've lived in Gainesville, never heard a negative word about the Friends of the Library, the book sale. I mean, it's probably one of the most beloved institutions in the community. So thank you very much for your work. And I did think of what I wanted to ask - and potential volunteers may be interested in this question -

Tina:

do you get first dibs? PJ: No.

Ellen:

Well, we don't get first dibs during the sale at all. However, if you work a certain number of hours for a certain period of time, then you can either buy - at the regular price! - a book that you see that you like. It's probably going to cost you 50 cents. You can always invest 50 cents or $1. PJ: [laughs] Again, and increase your library collection.

Tina:

Okay, good to know. That's still a nice advantage. One of the perks. So thank you very much for being here. I found it very fascinating. And I just - I don't know, I just love the idea of recirculating the books and supporting all of the things that you support. So thank you very much.

Ellen:

Thank you. Thank you. PJ: You're most welcome. Thank you.

PJ:

Anybody that loves books, he can't be anything wrong with him.

Tina:

No. I really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you.

PJ:

And thanks for inviting. [music] Thanks for listening to Patrons & Partnerships. If you know of an individual or organization you'd like to recommend for an interview, email us at lpsfprogram@gmail.com. To listen to more episodes, find us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or Spotify. And be sure to check out the Alachua County Library on Spotify while you're there for chill playlists to read to, handpicked by our librarians.