April 23, 2018

Gifted Libraries

Going beyond books, library gift shops are raising funds and awareness for a growing number of Friends and foundations.

Libraries have long held sales of deaccessioned or donated books once or twice a year, usually run by all-volunteer Friends of the Library organizations. Many have dedicated spaces or rooms where books can be purchased year-round. These in-house used bookshops are moneymakers for libraries, with stock that’s often liberally seeded with last year’s best sellers.

Following the lead of many bookstores, libraries are discovering a strong source of fundraising revenue in nonbook merchandise. Patrons are interested in purchasing more than just secondhand books, and these days many large library systems—and an increasing number of smaller ones—have some kind of gift shop on the premises.

Bookstore patrons have objected to the “wind-chime” factor for taking shelf space away from the books themselves. In libraries, as the digital shift shrinks print collections, this may be less of an issue—though new demands for community and creative space mean that room is still not unlimited. Some merely set aside a few shelves in their used book rooms or behind the reference desk for additional items, while other newly constructed or renovated branches have spaces specifically designed for retail.

But large or small, these shops are proving to be a reliable—and innovative—way to raise money, promote the library, showcase local artists, and even conduct a bit of outreach.

The goods

Merchandise ranges from mainstream card store items—stationery, toys, and novelties—to one-of-a-kind works from local artists and artisans sourced at crafts fairs or on websites that feature handmade wares. Library- and literature-themed goods are popular: card catalog look-alike note cards, socks bearing old-fashioned date stamps, “Keep Calm and Read On” signs, and souvenirs referencing Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Edgar Allan Poe. T-shirts, water bottles, and tote bags branded with the library’s name and logo do double duty as community boosters and promotional items. All profits, after any salaries are paid, go into library coffers or toward individual programs and wish list items.

Friends of Libraries—the nonprofit, grassroots charitable groups that help support, promote, and raise funds for libraries in their communities—are volunteers, unlike library foundations, which are generally staffed by paid fundraisers. Library foundations are created for the purpose of securing private donations, but there is some overlap between the two; both groups are officially recognized by the American Library Association as divisions of its advocacy arm, United for Libraries. And while library gift shops are nearly always the province of one or the other, occasionally the two join forces.

Some gift shops, while still enclosed within the library walls, have their own physical identities. The Library Store at Salt Lake City Public Library, for instance, is part of Library Square, a shopping complex within the Main Library that also holds a café, coffee shop, florist, comic book store, radio station, writers’ center, local artists’ co-op boutique, and gallery.

Others occupy repurposed former staff rooms, or are tucked into corners of their libraries and defined mainly by signage. Princeton Public Library (PPL), NJ, does a brisk business from the lineup behind its main lending services desk. Mugs and tote bags branded with the library’s logo are popular, and a local toy store has partnered with PPL to provide gifts for readers—­Einstein dolls, T-shirts featuring book covers, and the like.

The library receives 20 percent of the profit, and Timothy K. Quinn, PPL’s marketing and communications director and a 2013 LJ Mover & Shaker, feels that “it’s a win-win for us, not just from a revenue-generating standpoint but because we’ve built a great relationship with a local merchant, and our customers are served well by having choices. We think it’s a pretty good arrangement.” He adds, “The whole thing is manageable and it’s a nice showcase for our partnerships”—an added benefit for a smaller library.

Not every shop has an online presence or sells high-ticket items. But the money raised adds up, and gift shop strategies turn out to be as diverse as the libraries that house them.

LIBRARIES HAVE THE GOODS Moneymaking ventures come in the form of diverse retail options (clockwise from top l.): FriendShop at the Seattle Public Library Central Library; San Diego Public Library’s Library Shop West corner, looking toward Petco Park; SDPL’s Library Shop buyer and manager Erin Zlotnik; and Los Angeles Public Library’s Library Store on Wheels. Seattle PL Photo courtesy of Friends Of The Seattle Public Library; San Diego PL Photos by Stacy Keck; LAPL photo by Ryan Romero Photography

LIBRARIES HAVE THE GOODS Moneymaking ventures come in the form of diverse retail options (clockwise from top l.): FriendShop at the Seattle Public Library Central Library; San Diego Public Library’s Library Shop West corner, looking toward Petco Park; SDPL’s Library Shop buyer and manager Erin Zlotnik; and Los Angeles Public Library’s Library Store on Wheels. Seattle PL Photo courtesy of Friends Of The Seattle Public Library; San Diego PL Photos by Stacy Keck; LAPL photo by Ryan Romero Photography

Regional identities

When the Seattle Public Library (SPL) built its Rem ­Koolhaas–designed Central Library in 2004, the gift shop—formerly a Friends-run counter selling steno pads and pencils—was offered a larger presence. The Friends board hired Miriam Works and Christina Rockrise of Works Consulting, a local retail consultant, to help them design and manage the innovative new third-floor space, constructed of high-tech modular shelving on tracks that literally opens and closes the store, ­depending on its arrangement.

Ten years later, SPL’s FriendShop has a strong regional identity, stocking a combination of literary-themed goods and items made by more than 70 local artists. FriendShop manager Lisa Lee bases her inventory decisions on feedback from customers and visiting librarians and scoping Etsy for work by Northwest artisans. Still, she says, “Our number one category of items sold is anything that has the building icon on it,” adding, “we’re fortunate to have that as such a draw.”

Two years ago the FriendShop began hosting pop-up shops, taking 30 cases of used books and a choice of products to select branches around Seattle. While the shop itself has an array of donated books—it sold 10,000 last year—and SPL Friends holds large periodic book sales, the pop-ups allow the book sales to reach different corners of the sprawling city.

Although revenue has fluctuated with the economy, the FriendShop brings in some six figures annually. Each year the library presents a wish list to the Friends, which the library board then votes on in November. In 2014 the focus was on job skills classes, licenses for movies to be shown at SPL branches, and the library’s Raise-a-Reader program, all of which were successfully funded. Lee, who began working with the SPL Friends as a volunteer 11 years ago, has been approached by other groups looking to replicate its successful model, she says, and she advises them always to look for opportunities. “A lot of Friends groups primarily sell used books,” she tells LJ, “but there’s so much more that can be done.”

A “literati boutique”

Not all library gift shops evolve from Friends’ book sales, however. When the San Diego Public Library’s (SDPL) $185 million Central Library was built in 2013, the Library Shop was financed by both the library foundation—its fundraising arm—and donations from Friends groups, but it is run by the foundation. Erin Zlotnik, the shop’s buyer and manager and the foundation’s director of donor experience, was formerly a sales manager at Random House. The foundation hired her in mid-July 2013 to create a gift shop from an empty space, giving her just over two months to design shelving and fixtures, build it out, hire staff, and order merchandise.

“It was a hectic two months,” Zlotnik recalls. Painted and repurposed for display were old fixtures from the library, including book carts and a card catalog. The rest of the work was donated by the San Diego Fine Woodworkers Association, which helped Zlotnik come up with sketches as well. The result is a bright and cheerful space surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows. She changes the merchandise periodically to reflect what sells but concentrates on cards, books, toys, and local products. The shop also collaborates with the library on programs, such as a monthly yoga class provided in partnership with a local studio.

The SDPL Central Library also holds a Friends’ bookstore, where books go for 50¢ or $1, which is staffed by volunteers. Zlotnik’s predecessor had hoped to staff the Library Shop completely with volunteers as well, but with its seven-day-a-week schedule and plenty of night and weekend events, that proved infeasible; Zlotnik works full-time, supported by four part-time workers and three volunteers who cover regular shifts.

Like Seattle’s Lee, Zlotnik enjoys the additional reach provided by pop-up events and booths at local crafts shows. They also enable her to find new and interesting stock. “If I’m at a crafts show we have a booth at, I try to walk around and get to know the other vendors,” she explains, sometimes testing a few items out at pop-up shops on a consignment basis. She is hoping to launch an e-commerce site, a few selections at a time, this spring. But the physical space is already a popular destination; in a 2014 shopping supplement, San Diego Magazine voted SDPL’s Library Shop “Best Literati Boutique.”

TELLING ONE STORY New York Public Library’s Readers & Writers Shop in the iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Photo by Jonathan Blanc

TELLING ONE STORY New York Public Library’s Readers & Writers Shop in the iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Photo by Jonathan Blanc

On the road

The Los Angeles Public Library system’s (LAPL) Library Store has taken the idea of gift shop outreach and—literally—run with it. In addition to its Central Library, LAPL serves 72 branches over a large area. When director of retail services Christine Romero first decided to expand the store’s reach with pop-up shops in 2011, the events themselves did well, but transporting and setting up the merchandise was time-­consuming. So in 2012 the Library Foundation of Los Angeles purchased a 22-foot-long former mail truck, painted it blue, and outfitted it as the Library Store on Wheels.

The Library Store itself has been a well-established attraction at the Central Library since 1993. It carries literary-themed gifts, books signed at the branches’ many author events, unique and educational children’s items, and Los Angeles–centric merchandise. The Library Store on Wheels brings a variety of that stock to other branches and outlying neighborhoods, crafts and art fairs, and literary festivals, venturing out every weekend and often during the week as well. While it only accounts for a small portion of the store’s revenue, “it gets our name out there, and we do have people who follow us,” Romero says.

For readers and writers

When it comes to developing a cohesive identity, the gift shop at the New York Public Library (NYPL) is not cutting any corners. Helene Silver, the store’s director of retail initiatives, tells LJ, “I came about a year and a half ago and decided…this is not just a landmark library in a landmark building in the heart of New York City, so we rebranded it the Readers & Writers Shop, because this is a research building as well as [one] containing a circulating library.”

The 1,200 square foot store, which opened in NYPL’s iconic beaux arts Schwarzman Building in 1987, has doubled its revenue in the last two years, in part owing to Silver’s careful branding. As befits a retail operation in the heart of Manhattan, as well as notebooks and mugs the store carries high-end items, including jewelry, fine art, and desk globes—“things you have to hand-sell,” says Silver. To that end, she likes to have eight salespeople on the floor, especially at busy times of the year. In addition to sales staff, the store employs two buyers—one for books and one for gifts and accessories.

Books make up 60 percent of the merchandise. But all of it, from New York–themed cards to—of course—marble bookends in the likeness of Patience and Fortitude, the library’s two guardian lions, works together. “Everything is harmonious and ties in,” explains Silver, “so that the gifts, the accessories, the books—we hope—tell one story.”

Candles, chocolate, and a delivery van

But bigger is not always better; some of the most modest operations generate surprisingly robust profits. Proceeds from the Friends Shoppe at the Westerville Public Library, OH, pay for the library’s summer reading program, as well as ice cream socials on the lawn and live chamber music between Thanksgiving and Christmas. “But then,” library deputy director Karen Albury tells LJ, “we ask for [specific] individual items—computers, flat screen TVs, microphone sound systems, display cases, self-check machines, all kinds of stuff.” Last year, the Friends Shoppe bought the library a custom delivery van.

The shop, built during the library’s major renovation in 1997, is open 20 hours a week. An all-volunteer staff means there is little overhead, and a dedicated group of Friends take care of all scheduling and purchasing—Friends president ­Arlene Roeder, notes Albury, “is brilliant at what she picks,” including jewelry, candles, local items, unusual stuffed animals, and “wonderful chocolate.”

Still, its enormous success defies easy explanation. Business relies on foot traffic in and out of the library and is driven by the Friends’ newsletter, but so far the Friends have been resistant to an e-commerce model. “We’ve tried to nudge them in that direction,” says Albury, “but they’re kind of traditional. They want that one-to-one personal relationship, to see the people they’re selling things to. It’s just part of their joy.” But Albury isn’t complaining. “We’ve been very, very pleased,” she tells LJ. “I mean, it’s beyond any expectation we had.”

This article was published in Library Journal's March 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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  1. I can see there being a benefit to having a library bookstore, but only to a certain extent. As the article illustrates, the idea of having a library shop is a wonderful source of revenue for both the library and charity fundraising. However, it seems to take away from the focus of a library, which is the books.

    I find this to be in the vein of librarian-manned checkout stations being replaced by self-checkout stations with machines. It takes away from the library experience, both figuratively and literally.

    As long as it does not take away from the point of a library, it would definitely behoove an establishment to have a shop to bring in added revenue. Goodness knows, libraries suffer severely from city and nation budget cuts.