Friends of the Library hits pause, stays above water after losing annual book sales

Posted 3/2/21

If you were to ask Rhoda Berkowitz what she does, she might tell you she works in mysteries.

That’s technically true, considering she’s the person who organizes the mysteries sections of the …

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Friends of the Library hits pause, stays above water after losing annual book sales

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If you were to ask Rhoda Berkowitz what she does, she might tell you she works in mysteries.

That’s technically true, considering she’s the person who organizes the mysteries sections of the biannual Friends of the Chatham Community Library book sales.

She said she got involved with the FCCL around 17 years ago when she first moved to Chatham County, and soon turned volunteering with the group into a priority.

“As soon as we moved I got involved with the book sale,” she said. “I also got on the board of the Friends. Then I was president of the board for two years and I’m still on the board.”

These days, that includes serving on committees within the nonprofit, and in a normal year helping out every Tuesday morning to organize books for one of the biannual book sales.

But Berkowitz could also tell you work has been slow as of late. The FCCL announced in February the cancellation of its Spring Book Sale — originally planned for late March — citing health concerns stemming from COVID-19. This marks the third book sale upended by the pandemic, and it’s leaving the organization in a bit of a holding pattern.

The FCCL is a nonprofit volunteer group that aims to support the Chatham Community Library in Pittsboro. Besides serving as an advocate for the library, the FCCL contributes supplemental funds for expenditures that fall outside of the county’s allotted budget for the reading center.

Karen Hengeveld, the president of the Friend’s board of directors, estimates each book sale raises between $17,000-20,000 in gross revenue. A portion of that money goes back to the nonprofit to handle operating costs, but Hengeveld said much of it is funneled to the library.

“Those two book sales a year are probably approximately 60% of the revenue we provide to the library each year,” she said. “We’re a 501(c)3, so we keep track of how the money is spent of course, but we give the library almost all of that money back directly for programs and services.”

In addition to that, the FCCL also holds grant money intended for the library. A grant may stipulate it has to be administered by a 501(c)3, according to Hengeveld, so the FCCL distributes the money as the library meets the goals laid out by the grant.

But Hengeveld also said grant funding is typically much less money than what is raised via book sales. And some of that book sale money has been the backbone for a few crucial library services during the pandemic.

“Our OverDrive content e-books, e-audio, e-magazines — the Friends pay for all of that and our demand for that service has more than doubled since we closed last year,” said Rita Van Duinen, Chatham Community Library’s branch manager. “So if we didn’t have (that funding), we’d have a lot of unhappy people out there.”

Van Duinen said contributions from the FCCL underwrite other things like programming services, library collections and some staff development. Besides the odd contribution that comes in from a family or friend of the library, Van Duinen said the nonprofit is also the library’s biggest fundraiser.

One thing to note is that even if the book sale doesn’t happen, it doesn’t mean the library won’t see similar financial support from the FCCL as it has in years past.

Don Knowles is the former president of the FCCL and serves on the Library Advisory Committee. He mentioned the nonprofit has been able to build up reserve funds over the years.

“We have been able to maintain our financial support for the last year and a half, but we can’t do that indefinitely,” he said.

Knowles projected those reserves could likely continue a sustained rate of giving for another year or so, but he said keeping up similar contributions in the future would likely require a book sale to take place by the spring of 2022. Van Duinen also mentioned the library had actually decreased budget requests from the FCCL over the last three years because of a smaller membership base and revenue loss from sales.

And when another book sale will happen is just one of a few questions on the FCCL’s plate.

“We’re just on a huge pause until we see how things go with vaccines and herd immunity and safety,” Hengeveld said. “Everyone’s going to be wearing masks for a long time down the road until we’re sure, but the book sale team has not talked about a fall book sale yet and we won’t for quite a while, frankly, until sometime this summer.”

The FCCL lost its March 2020 book sale when the library closed its doors to the public last year during the early stages of the pandemic. Hengeveld said volunteers can’t even get to the 17,000 books and other items that were being staged for that sale, but the lack of sales meant lost opportunities to build up another critical resource: people.

Besides books, another thing sold at these book sales are memberships to the nonprofit. These start at $15, and Hengeveld estimated the current membership base at more than 600. In response to cancellations, the FCCL has sent out letters to the community asking for donations. Still, Hengeveld said revenue from memberships and donations can’t compete with the cash flow of the spring and fall book sales.

Also being lost with the book sales is social opportunity. Berkowitz said besides just getting books into people’s hands at reasonable prices, one of her favorite things to see during the sales are moments of community.

“It’s a real community event,” she said. “People help each other at this sale; it’s not just looking for themselves. If they hear somebody wants a book, they’ll look for that person as well.”

There have been several times when a book made its way back into the sale after being sold at a previous FCCL fundraiser, Hengevald said. She mentioned the opening hours of each sale always seem to have a lot of high energy chatter and excitement.

Knowles called the book sale something that reminds people of the FCCL’s footprint in the community and continued support of the library.

“The book sale is a tangible thing members get back for their money,” he said.

And it’s that social capital Hengeveld hopes to capitalize on once it’s safe to do so again. She said other ideas she’s had for income generation that could rival the book sale are all tied to being out in the community, something the nonprofit’s volunteers can’t risk right now. Her priorities for the moment are to keep the organization above water as it waits for the library doors to reopen to the public.

“Some of the things that would be nice to have in an expansive, non-pandemic world are just going to have to wait awhile,” she said. “We can sort of breathe and see when the library opens. Until it makes sense to start ramping up the Friends activities, I’m not sure what we can do.”

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