Half a million bucks, one used book at a time

Note: The Friends of the Guelph Public Library is still searching for a location to hold the 2018 book sale. If you can help, leave a message for Virginia Gillham in the comment section.

(26 October 2016) – For ten years, the Friends of the Guelph Public Library has been raising money for our best friend, the Guelph Public Library. We haven’t stopped yet, and don’t intend to. So far we are over half a million dollars to the good. All of it has come from selling books, most of them at two or three dollars each.

For the first one in 2007 we rented some tables, set them up in the Old Quebec Street Mall and loaded them up with donated books. The mall had been the Eaton Centre up until 1999 when Eaton’s went belly up, a major casualty of the global store wars. American retail giants had crossed the border and annihilated many of the Canadian retail giants that got in their way.

The space where Eaton’s used to be had been transformed into an arena for the Storm, Guelph’s OHL team. On Friday nights hockey fans would walk through the mall to get to a game. Others would cut through to get to a concert in the River Run Centre across the street. Some just came in to get out of the weather.

That first year we had a decent selection of books. Those that wouldn’t fit on the tables were stored in a vacant shop close by. We set up on Friday evening and covered everything with sheets to protect it all from prying eyes until Saturday morning. By the end of the day we felt justifiably pleased and proud that we had sold most of the books and cleared about $8,000 after expenses.

The money would be used to finance an enhancement to the main downtown library, if and when it ever gets built. In the early nineties the Library Board and the city realized the existing downtown library was no longer adequate and began searching for a place to build a new one. We thought we’d better hurry up our fund raising efforts because we’d need the money soon.

We did one more sale in the mall and brought in about $9,000. Then we moved down Wyndham Street to the store recently vacated by Wyndham Art Supplies. There was only one person in Guelph we were glad didn’t show up for the sale that year: the fire marshal. We were jammed. Book browsers stood shoulder to shoulder, cheek to jowl, bum to butt. It was another great success, netting another $19,500.

Wyndham Arts had recently moved across the road because the city was starting to acquire property on which to build the new library. Those were heady days, full of optimism and hope with a fair bit of faith in the future. We could see the new library, taste it, feel it. Consultants were hired to draw pictures of it. Meetings were held to show the pictures to the community. Again we thought we’d better crank up the fund raising. It wouldn’t be long until we’d need the money.

In 2010, we left the downtown and went to the industrial basin in the northwest corner of the city. We had been given access to the Fast Forms building on Imperial Road. The business was owned by the Christie family, a fine bunch of philanthropic people who proved themselves to be good friends of the Friends. It was still a nervous decision. Would people get on a bus and go that far to buy a used book? Would they get in their cars and drive out to find us? They did. In droves.

That’s when and where we really found our legs. With the extra space we could put up more tables and have more room between them. Book browsers had room to spare. They could think about their purchases in comfort. Word of the annual sale had spread through the used book dealers community and they began lining up outside the doors waiting for the sale to open. The other people who walked through the doors were starting to rent the books for a year. Many would buy a box of books one year and donate them back the next.

We held the sale there for four years, until Gary Christie found a buyer for the building. In 2013, our final year at Fast Forms, we cleared $70,000. We had entered the book sale big league.

Growth brought its challenges, and our couple of hundred volunteers were always up to the task. We consulted with organizers of similar events to learn from their best practices, just as they were eager to learn from ours. We received good support and advice from Guelph Police Services regarding security. Meridian Credit Union gave us special weekend access to their night deposit vault.

The sale grew with us, and we grew with the sale.

In 2014 set up shop in the old White Rose store on Edinburgh Road. It hadn’t been a White Rose building for years. Owned almost forever by the Wellington County Separate School Board, it was most recently a Meadowville Nursery retail outlet. Somehow White Rose found a secure place in our hearts. The school board has sold the building, the new owners want to knock it down and build residences, but it will always be where White Rose used to be.

We needed a new location for 2015 and once again luck was on our side. JL’s Home Hardware had recently moved into a new store they built on Wellington Street, just west of the Hanlon Parkway. Their old store on Speedvale Avenue was sitting empty.

Virginia Gillham, the Friends’ chair, had a chat with Bob Ireland, the property owner, and soon enough we had the space for the three months we need every year. We spent some money upgrading things like interior and exterior lighting and Bob’s your uncle.

It was in the Home Hardware building that we finally cleared the century mark. Or, more accurately, the millennium. One hundred and eleven thousand dollars later we were looking for another new home.

We found one this year in the old W.C Woods warehouse on Huron Street down in The Ward. It’s a huge building, and we only needed about half of it. It stretches for 270 metres along the Guelph Junction Railway track from Huron Street to Duke Street.

A local history buff told me the place began its life a hundred or so years ago as the Guelph Paper Box Company. Those were the days when the Ward was home to Guelph’s large Italian community and a landing area for immigrants from other European countries. It held homes, shops, schools, churches and factories. People could live, work, study, pray and play all within easy walking distance.

Then the factories moved to industrial zones, the children got on buses to big box schools, and our stores gathered in grand shopping malls. Now we’ve gone full circle. City planners hire consultants to tell them how to get back to live-work-play neighbourhoods.

Nonetheless, we were happy to use some of the space created by modernization. Almost 8,000 people were happy to buy books in it.

We have benefitted enormously from the generosity of some of Guelph’s largest property owners. We have paid them whatever they asked in terms of utility costs or building repairs and lighting upgrades. At the same time, we would not have needed these properties were it not for the generosity of the Guelph community and the dedication of the hundreds of volunteers who sort the books before the sale and staff the tables during it.

In addition to them, we owe our success to a brilliant organizing committee, the staff of the Guelph Public Library, and the support of Guelph Police Services, Meridian Credit Union, and the Guelph Community Foundation where the sale proceeds are invested. We have already donated about $30,000 to the library for special projects such as a digital microfiche scanner  and to open a special endowment fund account for the library within the Guelph Community Foundation.

It has been a great ten years. The half million already raised will continue to grow. But before we can spend it on a special enhancement for the new library, we need a new library to enhance. To get that we need a city council with the political courage to make it happen.

The library cannot continue to be a mirage, a distant object that does not get any closer no matter how much we move towards it.

1 Comment

  1. Well said, Alan. It’s such a pleasure to be involved with this project and see ‘community faith’ in action. On more than one occasion, I heard people remarking on the wonderful sight of a vast room full of reading devotees.
    Hats off to the amazing volunteers with Friends of GPL and the Giant Book Sale Committee – you folks are the best!

Comments are closed.