A Beginner’s Guide to Building a School Bookstore

Photo of a classroom wall filled with five picture book displays filled with books and a revolving carousel and wooden shelf filled with books. Book covers dance across the wall as decoration.

Behold my daughter’s school’s free bookstore. Or as I call it, the Classroom of Awesome. It’s like my family’s Wall of Awesome, only awesomer. I built it over the past 10 months. Two-thousand books, a few hundred hours and some wrestling with argumentative bookshelves.

125 Goosebumps. 55 Harry Potters. 30 Clifford the Big Red Dog.

A close-up view of chapter books on a shelf.

How long does it take to organize 2,000 books on shelves?  Hey, 8 hours with 3 people. How much space do 2,000 books take up in your home before you transport them to a school? Don’t make me relive the nightmare.

You wouldn’t believe the number of people who need the bookstore idea explained to them. Give. Books. To. Kids. For. Free. What don’t you understand?

  1. Bring a whole class for a visit. Every student gets a book. We’re an impoverished community. Some kids have no books at home.
  2. Incentives to students struggling with reading.
  3. Incentives to academic achievers.
  4. Rewards from playground monitors who witness outstanding behavior.
  5. Replace pizza, ice cream and popcorn parties (which are exceedingly common at schools these days) with bookstore visits.

My least favorite response is being told our school has a library. Yes, and there’s a difference between borrowing books and owning books. There’s pride and value in ownership. I didn’t understand that just last summer when my kind readers took me to task for raging against kids who write their names in books.

Then, this past spring, I was honored to witness a field trip in which a small number of students chose used books from a real bookstore using donated credit. I thought, we can do this ourselves on campus, and we can do it for every student. Let’s make magic.

[An aside... I love libraries. Our first use of the bookstore will be to replace the traditional party held by our librarian for the classroom that has the best "return rate" on library books this semester. Now those students will choose a book to own instead of sugar to consume.]

Photo of two white double-sided shelves filled with chapter books and two revolving carousels filled with books.

The white shelves above came from Gottshalks when the local department store closed. They moved to a Mexican grocery store, then a nonprofit service organization and finally were donated to our school when my wife spotted them by chance while donating items to the nonprofit’s own rummage sale.

Anyhow… I’d be happier if our school abandoned incentive-based learning, but as long as we’re saddled with this backward notion, I aim to make books the most valued reward. Treat books like the treat they are.

Money willing, anyone can build this sort of bookstore, but it requires two qualities most parents lack – interest and time. You must enjoy “the thrill of the hunt” for children’s books and must spend a few hours every week hunting.

What follows is a bookophile’s guide to creating a bookstore.

1. Attend garage sales for 2 to 5 hours every Saturday and visit thrift stores every week. Buy only books in very good to new condition. No major wear, stains or stink. Yeah, give ‘em a whiff for mold. Buy books to be proud of.

Focus your garage sale visits on those that advertise in the newspaper or Craigslist as having children’s items. When an ad mentions baked goods, you know the sale has kids’ stuff even if it’s not mentioned. School and church sales can be a gold mine.

When books are being sold for more than your spending allowance, ask when the sale will be over, and then return at the end to haggle. If the sale was advertised on Craigslist, e-mail the seller with an offer to buy leftover books at your target price. It sometimes works.

This is where ‘the thrill of the hunt’ is required, otherwise you just feel like a poor loser schlepping for bargain books. The challenge of acquiring awesome books for ridiculously low prices must be one of the things that keeps you going.

2. Know your budget. I sought $1,000 from my school’s parent group for books, but settled for $500, buying books for 25 cents each, and letting many 50 cent books slip through my fingers. To make a bookstore, you need to buy many more books than you have students. The idea is for students to have a wide selection, to be making value judgments about books, instead of being handed a predetermined book as a gift.

3. Scrounge, beg and buy used shelves. I got two revolving carousels donated using the ‘Wanted’ section on Craigslist. Two more were donated from a garage sale. Several more were purchased cheap from a closing art supply store and closing children’s toy store. One shelf came from  school district storage.

4. Use book dust jackets as wall decorations. Cut off the cover of the just jacket and laminate it. The American Library Association has some great literacy posters if you have the funding. Having a mother who did a brief stint as a school librarian can be helpful in turning up some 1983 Yoda and Kermit literacy posters, too.

5. Scrounge up a carpet and school chairs. Ours came from school storage (not pictured), but they can also be purchased new using Scholastic credit (obtained from Scholastic Book Fairs that most schools hold). I originally envisioned a sofa and rocking chairs for students to read books in while they wait for classmates to finish choosing their books, but it’s a dream at this point.

Photo of more double-sided shelves holding picture books and a revolving carousel as well.

That’s it. Most of all, you need your parent group’s support for the idea. Funding has been an uphill battle for me.  I worry about sustainable funding.

Meanwhile, our teachers toured the bookstore this week. They’re behind it 100 percent. One described it as “being a kid in a candy store” and another told me we may be the only elementary school to have something like this. I understand now why that may be the case.

So, really, a project like this takes more than time and interest. It takes endurance, and remembering who and what you are fighting for.

A close-up photo of picture books.

Another close-up photo of picture books.

Update: Hi Reddit! Thanks for your words of support. Per Redditor bbibber’s request, here is a donate button. Books are purchased for 25 cents. Ten dollars can put books into the hands of 40 students. Your help is greatly appreciated.

Our parent group is a nonprofit organization and donations are tax-deductible in the US. If you’d like a tax receipt mailed or e-mailed to you, there should be an option to specify this during the donation process.

Thank you!

Second Update: Read the follow-up post: A Random Act of Reddit


25 Responses to “A Beginner’s Guide to Building a School Bookstore”

  1. Inki says:

    That is so awesome! Good job :-)

    October 6th, 2010 at 4:12 am

  2. Blair says:

    WOW! Just WOW! That is amazing!

    October 6th, 2010 at 4:58 am

  3. Jen says:

    Awesome job. You should be proud! (also, what is it with parent’s groups? I swear they are all like that !)

    October 6th, 2010 at 8:32 am

  4. JudyB says:

    You rock!

    Gotta go, there’s something in my eye..*sniff*

    October 6th, 2010 at 9:17 am

  5. LilliMa says:

    You are amazing and inspiring. Thank you.

    October 6th, 2010 at 9:44 am

  6. observer says:

    i love this idea. it can really get kids into reading if they can choose their own books to keep. i only wish every school had one of these.
    ( by the way, homeschool sales are a great place to get used books and educational games and toys for cheaper than they would normally cost.)

    October 6th, 2010 at 4:00 pm

  7. Mags says:

    Very nice. I see some books in there that stood out in my own childhood. :)

    October 6th, 2010 at 7:24 pm

  8. Dani says:

    What a wonderful spectacular idea.
    You should be so proud!

    October 6th, 2010 at 7:34 pm

  9. AJ says:

    Thanks everyone for the supportive comments. They are very much appreciated.

    Observer, I’ve found homeschool sales to be a mixed bag. They’re great on a personal level because I find good educational books for my family. They’re not so great for our school because the prices are usually too high… because the parents have a stronger attachment to the books. For example, selling Magic School Bus paperbacks for $3 each when any other sale has them for 25 cents. I always attend homeschool sales though.

    October 7th, 2010 at 6:59 am

  10. Michele says:

    Kudos to you! Thanks for sharing and implementing such a fantastic idea.

    October 7th, 2010 at 6:18 pm

  11. Midge says:

    Wow. Wow. AJ, this is truly awesome. As a teacher I am amazed. The students at your daughter’s school are very lucky. Thank you!

    October 7th, 2010 at 10:11 pm

  12. ararechan says:

    how wonderful… Congratulations!
    I hope we can all continue to share a love for (real) books for our children!

    October 9th, 2010 at 8:10 am

  13. alicia says:

    This is awesome! Thank you for being an amazing person and doing this for all of those lucky kids!

    October 11th, 2010 at 9:02 am

  14. My Boaz's Ruth says:

    What grades is your daughter’s school? We don’t do the same thing, exactly. But our church is gathering books for the local elementary (K-5th) to give every child a book for Christmas (and then does it again at the end of the year). And I was wondering if Harry Potter would be appropriate for 5th graders or if you have older children in your school?

    October 14th, 2010 at 10:03 am

  15. Ginger says:

    I wonder if there’s a church/synogogue in your neighborhood that would take on this project long term? They could be a gathering point for books, review them for quality, and keep the shelves stocked. We partner with our neighborhood school to make sure all the kids eat over the weekend – I’m going to discuss this AWESOME idea with them. (I’m heading off right now to see “waiting for superman” – no telling where that will take me.) Rev. Ginger Watson

    October 15th, 2010 at 12:27 pm

  16. AJ says:

    I left MBR a longer reply via e-mail. Harry Potter ranks at a 5th to 6th grade reading level. I know a first grader who read the entire series. My own daughter’s reading level in first grade is that of a fifth grader, but the content of Harry Potter might be too scary at the moment.

    Ginger, I’m too much of a perfectionist to outsource the bookstore to a church or other organization. Between my kids, I’m slated to be at the school another 8 years. I trust in that time I’ll have the book acquisition process so tightly woven I can write an operations manual about how to stock and run the bookstore when I’m gone. I encourage you to start a bookstore at your church, whether it’s for a school or not.

    You could also work with a local library or even Rotary club (they have a national dictionary-donation program in schools). Our third graders receive free dictionaries from Rotary every year. Any organization interested in educating children is a potential ally.

    October 15th, 2010 at 7:13 pm

  17. Flinthart says:

    This is beyond fantastic.

    If you can harvest my email – I had to supply it to this comments box, so it’s gotta be there – please contact me. I’m a writer of fantasy/sf. I’ve recently dropped a story into an anthology which is aimed at kids in the 9-13 age group, here in Australia. My work aside, it’s an excellent anthology, and I’d be delighted to donate a half-dozen or so signed copies, if that would be of any use to you. (Yeah, I know. Posting them from Australia won’t be cheap. That’s okay. I only wish I could afford to send more.)

    If it’s not useful to you — nevertheless, I wish you all the best. I’m a parent too, in a struggling community in Tasmania, and I think what you’re doing is truly wonderful.

    October 22nd, 2010 at 11:22 pm

  18. AJ says:

    Awesome offer Flinthart. Thank you so very much. I can’t turn away free books. We don’t have any true science fiction in the bookstore. I’ve sent you the school’s shipping address in e-mail. Thanks again.

    October 23rd, 2010 at 2:41 am

  19. umair says:

    how beautiful .. looks completely awesome

    October 23rd, 2010 at 2:49 am

  20. Hunts says:

    Fantastic! Have you considered organizing as a NPO to allow tax write-offs for you and your donors? It seems like you’re in it for the long haul, and that may be a good way to establish your store once you move on. It would also make this idea more scalable to other schools in your area, if you (or your progeny) are interested.

    October 23rd, 2010 at 5:36 am

  21. AJ says:

    Hunts, yes, our nonprofit is a 501(c)(3), so donations are tax deductible in the US. I just added a note about this to the blog post. I’d be happy to mail or e-mail tax receipts to donors.

    October 23rd, 2010 at 5:50 am

  22. Rob Loukotka says:

    This is great. I remember when I was young not always being into library books, but loving books that I could call my own. Awesome idea!

    October 23rd, 2010 at 6:58 am

  23. Nonie says:

    You’re doing a really great thing. I was one of those really poor kids who couldn’t buy anything during the Book Fair. It would have been amazing to have access to something like this. Keep going!

    October 23rd, 2010 at 9:27 am

  24. OnMon says:

    Wonderful! I know book depositories where free books can be dropped off and picked up are becoming a more common idea in big cities (e.g. The Book Thing in Baltimore, a wonderful example of this), but I like that your “store” also treats books as a reward for kids. Still, scoring free books may be a boon to your bookstore if you can find them. Something to look into if you’re visiting a big city in the coming year?

    October 24th, 2010 at 6:37 pm

  25. AJ says:

    Thanks for the tip OnMon. The closest big cities to us are San Francisco and Sacramento (5 to 7 hour drives). I have salivated at the thought of timing a visit to my relatives (who live near both cities) to coincide with library book sales in the region.

    October 25th, 2010 at 5:10 pm