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When volumes get too heavy: Listen thrift stores spend thousands to dispose of unsalable books

  • Listen volunteer Linda Douville, left, of Grantham, N.H., laughs with Holly Hollenbeck, retail volunteer coordinator and resource manager, as they reorganize books at the Listen Thrift Store on Miracle Mile in Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023. Douville, who is an avid reader, has been volunteering at the store at least twice a week for over four years. “This is my dream job,” she said. “I’m in heaven when I’m here.” (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • Listen volunteer Linda Douville, of Grantham, N.H., organizes sheet music in the book section of the Listen Thrift Store on Miracle Mile in Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023. Sheet music moves quickly, Douville said, along with romance novels, classics and self-help books. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Thousands of books sit in categorized boxes in the downstairs storage area at the Listen Thrift Store on Miracle Mile in Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023. Listen employees and volunteers are constantly sorting and rotating the donated books they receive, but they aren’t able to sell all of them and many end up in the landfill. Listen is holding its first annual book event on March 10 in an effort to sell more of their stock and make space for new donations. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America Alex Driehaus

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/23/2023 4:34:15 PM
Modified: 1/26/2023 3:48:36 PM

LEBANON — The volunteers in the book department at the Listen Thrift Store on Miracle Mile run the “library” like a team of analysts.

Their strategizing — keeping the titles on the shelves relevant, circulating volumes between storage and the selling floor to keep space free for the store’s bloated inventory — is intended to sell as many books as possible from its ever-growing archive.

Used books are among the merchandise that the nonprofit Listen Community Services sells at its three thrift stores in Lebanon, Canaan and White River Junction to help fund its safety net programs.

But not all the books are best sellers. What donations aren’t purchased from the store, Listen must dispose of itself.

In its collection of more than 6,000 books, a portion end up in the Lebanon landfill.

“It’s not too often that a book makes it up to the floor and then doesn’t sell,” Holly Hollenbeck, the store’s retail volunteer manager, said.

But when that happens, and it’s time for the book to be tossed, Listen just doesn’t have the capacity to recycle it.

Diverting the book from the landfill — selling it, or keeping it from arriving at the store in the first place — has become the aim. Books, which can come in by the box load, are an expensive item for the store to process.

In 2019, the three stores racked up roughly $100,000 in disposal costs at Lebanon landfill. The stores’ fees at the landfill are based on weight, and books are an especially heavy, and consequently costly, item.

“We’re always looking for creative ways to reduce that cost,” the store’s manager Cody Jekubovich said. “Because obviously that’s an expense that really does take away from our programs as well.”

The nonprofit’s other initiatives include managing food shelves, hosting community dinners, and providing housing and heating financial assistance.

The store on Miracle Mile will run its first book event on March 10 to help alleviate its backstock, which is always bursting at the seams, Hollenbeck said.

For the event, the book crew is going to pull out “as many books as we physically can” from the depths of the overflow storage in the basement, she said.

They’ll double the volumes that are currently in the library, sending the number of books for sale on the floor to upward of two or three thousand.

The book team inspects titles and makes calls on what should be put out on the shelf. They work on a “usable vs. sellable” line.

First the books are processed, determined on the most basic grounds whether or not they can sell. Are they covered in stains or scribbles? Do they smell? Books are notorious for retaining odors, Hollenbeck said.

“But ‘sellability’ isn’t just about damage,” she said. “It can just be a book from the early 2000s about pregnancy or about some kind of health topic. It’s just outdated research info at this point.”

The store doesn’t accept textbooks or encyclopedias.

If books pass the test, then they are brought onto the floor, where they’re divided between children and adult books – each of which goes for $1. A larger book, like something you would want to put on a coffee table, gets individually priced.

Deeply familiar with the inventory, their eyes always on the spines, members of the book team also make the final call on whether or not a book gets thrown out for good.

Other spaces in the book community have felt the burden of the donation ethic. Lebanon’s two city libraries also accept used books, but in recent years have had to limit dropoffs to two boxes per household, per year. Without staggering and restrictions, the limited space would quickly be overwhelmed.

“There have been individuals who are moving, or just cleaning house, who wanted to give us upwards of 30 boxes,” Lebanon Libraries Director Sean Fleming said.

It’s rare that the library will have to throw away a book, Fleming said. But it does happen. He had just the other day ripped the hard cover off of a 1986 Tom Clancy book that had been mottled by coffee stains.

“It’s a lot easier than you might think” to tear the hardcover off of a bound book, he said. “You can recycle the paper and the cover gets tossed.”

But peeling apart its inventory book by book just isn’t practical on the scale at which Listen operates, Hollenbeck said.

So for now, books still contribute to Listen’s landfill fees. The sheer bulk of their paper recycling needs means that to recycle it, the store would need its own large dumpster onsite, which they don’t have the space for. Without a loading dock, they wouldn’t have the manpower either to fill it up with heavy books by hand.

“We process thousands and thousands of books in one small department,” Jekubovich said.

The numbers are supercharged when the snow begins to melt and donors start clearing out the excess they’ve accumulated — and read through — in hibernation.

“The book event will hopefully help us clear out space,” Hollenbeck said.

And lead to less business with the landfill.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.


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