There is a bookstore tucked down an alley between Telegraph Avenue and Channing Way where most books run a price of about $2. Friends of the Berkeley Public Library — more often referred to as The Friends — is a volunteer-run shop that opened in 1999, although its inception goes back to the 1950s when volunteers began holding popup book sales.
For more than six decades, The Friends have been selling donated books with two main goals — to make books affordable for everyone and to raise money for the programs that the Berkeley Public Library puts on, which now include child, teen, and adult programming, as well as Berkeley READS, an adult literacy program.
The libraries the bookstore support host “history lectures, film showings, and also offer a scholarship to a library staffer who is pursuing some kind of work in library science,” says The Friends President, Sandy Bails.
Bails says The Friends donate over $100,000 every year to support Library programming; they support the annual Authors’ Dinner to raise funds for the Library, and have been lead donors on the Library’s capital campaigns — “all this from the sale of books donated from the community and sold at extraordinarily low prices — think $1 for a hardback mystery, $2 for a quality paperback, and $2.50 for most hardcover books.”
The Friends also donate free books to programs at San Quentin State Prison, the Prisoners Literature Project, and the children’s wing of a local hospital.
This nonprofit has thrived for so many years due to a small group of unwavering volunteers. On Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., you’ll find them running the front end of the store and sorting through boxes upon boxes of donated books. Most books are sent out to live on the bookstore shelves and on the “50-cent” or “free” racks; some are listed on Amazon or saved for The Friends’s big annual sale that takes place in early May. A select few that seem of particular interest or value are placed on a special shelf for the venerable Gary Brown to investigate.
Brown – a bespectacled, slight, elderly man – was formerly a professor of architecture at UC Berkeley before finding The Friends. He started there working alongside book expert Don Foley, and took full reins of the book-sleuthing wing when Foley passed away. Brown’s memory is a bit nebulous when it comes to recalling exactly when he started, but a long-time volunteer remembers him already being a fixture in the store about 12 years ago. It’s possible he has been there longer.
“If anything looks old and musty and nobody feels quite comfortable actually pitching they’ll say, ‘Well maybe Gary,’” says Brown.
“Gary has a dogged curiosity,” says Bails. Some books carry stories only a select few have the patience to uncover, and Brown is one of them. His dedication has led to captivating discoveries.
In late 2015, a copy of Sigmund Freud’s Der Weitz appeared on Brown’s special shelf. After extensive poking around online and correspondence with Freud experts, Brown discovered that the initials penciled at the top belonged to Theodor Reik — a psychoanalyst who was an early student of Freud. Brown believes the book may have changed hands and found its way to the U.S. when the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society was invaded by Nazis and much of its library destroyed. After this discovery, Brown and The Friends decided to send the book back to the Society to re-inhabit its original home in Vienna. It is one of only six original books that have made their way back to their library after it was looted.
More recently, this spring, Brown was given a tattered book written in what looked at first to be Arabic. They considered putting it on the free rack before reaching out to Adnan Malik, a South Asia librarian at UC Berkeley. Malik informed Brown that the book was actually written in Urdu and they pieced together that it was an 18th-century book of narrative poems by the famous Mughal poet, Mir Hasan. Brown speculates the copy he possessed was a 19th-century rendition, commissioned by a rich patron. This book will soon be donated to UC Berkeley’s Southeast Asian Library.
“There are stories behind these books and being able to donate them to particular places for whom they’d be meaningful — that’s great,” says Bails.
Not all books of value are donated, of course. Many precious books that aren’t fit for Amazon are sold at Moe’s Books, just around the corner from The Friends.
In the past few years, the usual lulls throughout the year of book donations haven’t happened (Bails wonders if this is owed in part to the popularity of Marie Kondō’s book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up), so the sorters have to work hard to keep up with the towering stacks. The Friends are always happy to accept more volunteers but prefer that folks consider a long-term commitment. Book donations are welcome at The Friends’s Channing location or at their much smaller bookstore inside the Berkeley Public Central Library on Kittredge Street.
Bails says she holds immense gratitude for the small group of dedicated volunteers that keeps this bookstore afloat. Most of them are retirees, but a few are younger folks who the Friends are always thrilled to welcome in.
Bails remembers a recent incident when a student volunteer arrived. “He takes off his bike helmet and says, ‘Millennial blood, I’m here!’ It’s really nice to have that energy.”