The Friends of the Aurora Public Library Book Outlet is easy to walk by if you aren’t looking for it, tucked away as it is in a nondescript storefront on Iliff Square. But thousands of books flow through the small building each month, as volunteers receive and then sell donations ranging from the latest literary bestsellers to paperback thrillers.
Not only is the bookstore the best value bibliophiles are likely to get in town, with trade paperbacks selling for as little as 25 cents and new releases just $5, it also goes toward a million-dollar plus effort to preserve the Aurora Public Library for its current and future patrons.
Launched in 1987, Friends of APL is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, and has donated over $1.1 million dollars to the library since its inception.
“We were all shocked,” said Mary Lewis, the Friends’ current volunteer coordinator, upon realizing just how much money had been raised over the years.
The Book Outlet is a labor of love, currently staffed by an all-volunteer team of 54. As they celebrate the milestone, the Friends hope to spread the word about the outlet to more people in the Aurora area so that it can be a source of funding for the library for many years to come.
Midori Clark, director of Aurora’s Library and Cultural Services department, said the Friends’ support is invaluable to the library system.
“It would be very hard for us to do our jobs as well as we do them without their support,” Clark said. “Their continued advocacy and their energy is really inspiring and helps us serve the community so much better than we could do on our own.”
The library had a previous volunteer organization before the current Friends of the APL, but it dissolved many decades ago. In the 1980s, the library staff held a once-a-year book sale to raise money but at the end of the sale still had many leftover books. It was at that point that Kathy Groth decided to help restart the organization.
The Friends launched in 1987 and formally received a 501c3 designation the next year. When the book outlet first began it operated out of the Central Library, before moving to a storefront on Chambers and Alameda that left a lot to be desired, according to longtime volunteers. There was a bee infestation and at one point, groundhogs chewed a hole straight through the floor.
The Book Outlet moved to its current location in 2005, where it has a small but densely packed room full of books, albums and DVDs. An employee-only back room full of even more books is where volunteers sort, catalog and price donations before they go out.
“It’s a madhouse, but we pass the fire inspection each year, which always surprises me,” Lewis said with a laugh.
The average number of donations varies significantly, but everyone could remember the largest single donation the outlet has received. In the early 2000s, the son of a Colorado Springs couple donated his late parents’ personal library of 100,000 books, which had to be driven up in about 20 trailers and placed in a rented storage unit.
The husband was a collector of rare books, particularly about military history, and the wife collected cookbooks, among other things. The Friends sold about half in a single-day sale — some were very valuable finds.
“There was stuff in there you couldn’t find anywhere else,” said volunteer Keith McGechie.
Most donations are less exciting, but every single book that is donated helps the Friends raise money for the library. Lewis said that the Outlet probably takes in over twice as many books as it sells each month. Books are organized by section and priced according to book type and whether or not they are a new release. Volunteers decide based on a number of factors which books to place on the shelves, which to donate to other places and which to get rid of.
For a while, the Friends put books that they didn’t think would sell in a dumpster, which they said was a difficult experience. Groth, who was in charge of discards for many years, said she and her family amassed a personal library of over 6,000 books because there were so many instances where she couldn’t bear to throw a book away.
But putting books in the trash backfired sometimes. At one point Groth was transporting books in her car to a dumpster outside a local King Soopers, where she could sort and discard them surreptitiously on site. But then, “somebody found them, pulled them all out, and donated them back to the library.”
Since March, the Friends have been contracting with the company Dream Books Co., an online book recycling company started by a local entrepreneur. Books that don’t sell will be recycled and the paper used to make more books, insulation or other products. The Friends receive two cents per pound and have already received about $500 that way, Lewis said.
Plenty of books are purchased by the public, however. So many that in the first 25 years the Book Outlet was in operation it raised $600,000 for the library, despite the fact that in its first decades most of its books sold for as little as 10 or 20 cents.
“We used to have a nickel shelf,” volunteer David Origlio remembered.
That figure was discovered in 2021 when Lewis was going through old filing cabinets and discovered a proclamation the Aurora City Council had written for the Friends’ 25th anniversary, recognizing it for its efforts and for the money it had raised.
She tallied up the numbers to see how much it had raised in the ensuing decade. When it came out to over $1 million, everyone was stunned.
As of mid-September the Friends of the APL has raised a cumulative total of $1,107,250 for the library system, including over $30,000 so far in 2022.
It still sells most books for just a few dollars, and has regular sales based on what sections most need clearing out in a given month, Lewis said. To celebrate its 35th anniversary it held a sale where everything in the store was just 35 cents, and it also holds multiple half-off sales every year for the Friends’ 500-plus members, who also receive a regular 10% discount as part of the bargain.
The Book Outlet was closed for several months during the pandemic in 2020, and opened with reduced days. It’s now back to its regular hours of Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day.
Origlio said he used to come in right before opening on Saturday and would often be the ninth or 10th person in line waiting for the store to open. The Outlet has a lot of regulars who will come in each week and check their favorite section just to see what’s new — including Lewis’ husband, a history buff.
Booksellers from across the area as well as out of state will come too to stock up, along with scouts who will scour the shelves to see if there are any finds they can sell for a markup online or to another bookstore.
Volunteers do plenty of their own book buying too, with Groth joking that they all pay to work there.
“It is a sickness if you work here,” Lewis said. “I always said my dream job was at Tattered Cover but I’d spend everything I made at Tattered Cover, so this is much cheaper for me.”
Along with selling directly to customers, the bookstore also makes a brisk trade selling books to people staging homes, and donates books to other organizations that reach out as well.
Groth recalled seeing a request from the Adams 14 school district years ago for books for students, and loaded up the entire back of her car and drove to the district office.
“The woman who had placed the ad cried when I showed up with all these books for children,” she said.
Another time, she was in an alley with her car full of books waiting for an organization she was making a donation to to open up. A man walked by and asked if she needed any help carrying things.
“He sees all the books and says ‘Do you have any books in Spanish?’” Groth recalled. “And he went off down the alley with an armload.”
She’s also donated to the Adams County Jail, but only went once because the requirements for what could be donated were so strict: no sex, drugs or violence.
“That leaves out almost everything — including the Bible,” Groth said.
Foreign-language books, particularly in Spanish and other commonly spoken local languages, are one thing that the Friends say they would like the Outlet to receive more of than it currently does. The donations it does get are quite eclectic, though its most frequent authors include big-name thriller and romance novelists: David Baldacci, James Patterson, Danielle Steele, John Grisham and the like.
“It goes in cycles — whatever’s hot at the time,” McGechie said.
The Outlet receives a lot of religion books from the local seminaries as well as a lot of textbooks and children’s books, he said. Any teacher who shows their school IDs can receive books for their students for half price, and the Outlet tries to keep books that are frequently taught in schools on hand so that students and teachers can pick copies up for cheap.
Volunteers will also write down the names of books that people are interested in and will give them a call back if it shows up as a donation — which it often does. People often think the Outlet has an online database it can use to look up which books it has, but it’s a pretty low-tech operation, with volunteers writing out requests on paper slips and taping them to the shelves.
Along with books the Outlet also receives a lot of DVD and album donations from people who are downsizing their physical media collections in favor of streaming — but young people will come in to then go through the albums.
Puzzles are also a big hit, and were particularly popular during the pandemic. They were bought and donated back frequently, with Lewis saying they probably sold a few of the same puzzles five or 10 times. That happens with books too.
“People will read a book, bring it back, and it’s already marked and you just put it back on the shelf,” McGechie said.
Much ink has been spilled on the decline of reading in favor of movies, TV, social media and other proclivities. But despite all the things competing for readers’ attention, the Friends say that print is far from dead.
“There’s lots of people who still love books,” Lewis said. “People still want to hold a book in their hands.”
The money that the bookstore raises goes mostly to helping pay for the costs associated with programs, as well as things like maintenance needs, Friends of the APL vice president Heather Garber said. Programs are important because they keep the library relevant, she said.
“And that’s really what we need to do, because if they don’t stay relevant then people will stop going there,” Garber said.
Programming includes the library’s annual summer reading program, as well as things like author visits throughout the year and educational programs on things as varied as “how to update your resume to Dr. Seuss storytime,” Clark said.
The library’s current annual budget is about $6 million, according to Clark. That may sound like a lot, but the money goes fast, particularly as costs for books, furniture and just about everything else have risen post-pandemic.
“Every dollar the Friends gives us is greatly appreciated,” Clark said.
Clark said that the Friends’ dedication to the library inspires her, and she hopes that it will still be around long after she is gone.
“It is amazing that a group of volunteers can get together and have such an impact on an organization,” Clark said. “It’s a real pleasure being able to work with them just knowing how big their hearts are and how hard they work to get funding for the library.”