A book bin outside the Telegraph Andronico's: the bins could endanger donations to Friends of the Berkeley Public Library. Photo: Lance Knobel

Berkeleyans tend to be generous, civic-minded people, so the bright blue bins in supermarket parking lots marked “Donate Books” could inspire thoughts about clearing clutter from some shelves. Think again. The bins are run by for-profit Thrift Recycling Management, based in Lakewood, Washington. In Berkeley, the bins are now at Andronico’s and Safeway locations. Nationally only about 25% of the books are given to non-profits (locally, Safeway has a different arrangement with no books being sold).

According to a recent investigation by D. K. Row for The Oregonian, Thrift Recycling Management (TRM) has revenues of about $26 million a year and 200 employees. The books collected in the bins are sorted into three groups: about one-quarter are sold through online sites like Amazon, about half are pulped, and the final one-quarter is given to non-profits. Most of these go to Reading Tree, a non-profit registered in Utah. Row’s investigation revealed unusually close links between TRM and Reading Tree. TRM President Jeff Mullin is also president of Reading Tree. (Reading Tree’s 2009 990 form can be seen here. The organization had gross receipts of over $10 million in 2009.)

“They’re not being straightforward,” said Diane Davenport, president of Friends of the Berkeley Public Library. “TRM made $26 million last year from books that they’d gotten out of these blue bins.”

According to Davenport, the Friends have not yet seen any impact from the bins, which have been in Berkeley for less than a month. She said, however, that the friends group in Lafayette, where the bins have been in place a bit longer, has noticed an impact. Davenport said the Friends gave $128,000 to the Berkeley Public Library last year through its sales of books. About 60% of donated books are unsuitable for sale and are either given away free or collected by the non-profit DR3 recycling program run by St. Vincent de Paul.

“We depend on donations of salable books,” said Sayre Van Young, a volunteer with the Friends. “If people want to stick their 1983 encyclopedia in those damn blue bins, that’s okay.”

The book bins at Safeway stores are handled differently to others. According to Susan Houghton, Director of Governmental and Public Affairs for Safeway in Northern California: “No books will be sold.” Safeway has Reading Tree collect the books and sort them to go to either schools or to qualified charities. Unsuitable books — those that are tattered, soiled or unsellable — will be pulped. Safeway is working with the Oakland-based Reading Partners, which has been distributing books to schools for the last 10 years.

“We’ve already seen thousands of books going to students that didn’t have them otherwise,” said Matt Aguiar, chief operating officer of Reading Partners. He said the organization distributed to 40 schools in the Bay Area and another 20 schools nationally.

The books that don’t meet Reading Partners’ criteria, according to Safeway’s Houghton, are held for other charities. Reading Partners will be the conduit to other charities, such as library friends’ organizations.

A call to Andronico’s seeking comment on the bins on their sites was not returned.

Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...