April Newsletter

Think of an aircraft carrier, or a 747 hanger, or maybe the Seattle Convention Center: enormous, huge, very, very big! Thrift Books has rented four cavernous, hollow structures like this. One near Auburn, Washington, the other three are scattered across America and each are filling with millions of books from collection boxes or purchased for a song from Halfprice Books or schools and college bookstores, or remainders from commercial publishers.

I walked into their Northwest cavern near Emerald Downs, our race track that draws hundreds of thousands through the running season, and thought the track had been enclosed to beat Seattle’s rainy season; or maybe our new Sounders pro soccer team wrapped their practice field like a cocoon. Hector Rivas, Thrift’s CEO, and Heidi Shoemaker, National Accounts, run the entire national operation from their office, tucked in a small corner. They are aligned with a dozen cubicles of racing keyboards where fingers are dancing to orders from around the world through Amazon and Abebooks. A thousand sales a day are matched and mailed from a postal sub-station in another corner of this gigantic cave.

Such a simple business plan: give books a last chance by matching budget-conscious buyers with the most competitive online sellers. Thrift Books has mastered the craft that has so destroyed many small family bookstores. It is thriving as our economy slides downward, for the same reason movie attendance is climbing–reading and films offer alternatives to depression!

So how does this relate to Nargis Library Recovery? Think global! Thrift succeeds through efficiencies of scale and timing. By daily monitoring the inventory through tracking every book, they keep tab of titles not selling within a set time-frame. Like monkeys, dozens of agile employees clamber up and down eight foot shelving with narrow aisles running hundreds of feet on an east-west axis, while on the north-south axis front-end loaders move giant gaylord boxes to the margins where new books are unloaded, and books that have not sold are stacked in huge boxes to the ceiling. Each book is tracked by the label slapped on its spine as it is unloaded, sorted and priced when entering the warehouse, then shelved by arrival date, and tracked by hand-held readers so orders can be filled within minutes. And while we’re on numbers, the warehouse is 70,000 square feet, just shy of two acres, actually a tad smaller than the John C. Stennis, our massive aircraft carrier occasionally parked at Bremerton, its nearby home base.

I’m a recovering Cornell librarian. We pride ourselves on our up-to-date off-campus warehouse for holdings crowded out of on-campus libraries; suddenly in Thrift Book’s warehouse my radical need was met again to liberate books from the clutches of remote storage and place them in the hands of readers at the cheapest price. I feel badly about the mom and pop books stores driven out of business by this efficiency, but I celebrate the beauty of this organization that helps publishers and readers connect.

And now, after building inventory beyond his company’s sales & storage capacity, Hector Rivas needs to move lingering books out of space needed for incoming books; and he also feels a need to help readers around the world hold books in their hands, just like you and me who buy books on-line. The IRS cooperates by allowing a corporate tax deduction for this donation, and our 501-c-3 Institute of the Rockies can accept the donation. With these books we mid-wife rebirth of libraries in the Irrawaddy Delta over-whelmed by Cyclone Nargis. Our second container is to ship next weekend, our third one will leave Seattle in late May. Each is unloaded in Singapore, where smaller freighters ply the west coast of Malaysia and Thailand up to Yangon’s Hlaing River where they unload our precious books six weeks after leaving Seattle.

I’m sure there is a flaw in this perfect circle, but as of now, it remains just that, a perfect circle waiting for contributions sufficient to ship a 50,000 book container every two months to Yangon. They are distributed to libraries, except for 10% of the books, which Myanmar Book Aid Foundation sells for cash to purchase Burmese-language replacement texts. Burmese librarians are volunteering to sort, select and distribute all these books, and Myanmar Book Centre organizes the book fairs for the sales. The Burmese public has stepped forward to buy our books, and thereby contribute to recovery of the delta libraries. Your contribution can help move our next shipment, train librarians to access global knowledge on the internet, and rebuild damaged libraries.