By Dylan Phillips
An Emily Dickinson or Jane Austen-styled book purse. A book nerd quilt. Personal book selections from the library director.
These are some of the selections in the inaugural Beautifully Bookish Online Auction sponsored by the Friends of the Chapel Hill Public Library. With the COVID-19 pandemic preventing the organization from selling books in person, as it usually does every fall, the organization’s leaders felt holding an online auction this year would provide an innovative way to support the library.
It would also give the community an opportunity to purchase special bookish items, Friends President Karen Curtin said. Among those items will be three of Library Director Susan Brown’s curated collections.
“One is a bag of books about books, and I’ve curated about 16 or 18 books that are some of my personal favorites and ones that I recommend,” Brown said. “I’m also curating a bag of books about art. I also have an item that is sort of a personal reading recommendation service.”
Each bags of books will be packaged in an exclusive tote featuring art by Chapel Hill artist and writer Daniel Wallace.
The pandemic has brought the Friends a variety of challenges, driving the organization to transform its traditional business model. During a normal year, the Friends would hold three in-person book sales, generating most of the money the organization raises for the Chapel Hill Public Library. The pandemic has forced the organization to begin selling books online instead.
Curtin said the organization was first impacted by the pandemic in April, when it was forced to cancel a book sale. Since then, the Friends have been adapting.
“We normally raise about $150,000 a year for the library,” Curtin said. “We sell annual memberships, which is part of it, but the biggest chunk is we get tons of books donated by the community, over 100,000 a year are donated to the library.”
The online bookstore, which launched in September and offers readers a selection of over 2,500 titles, has been successful so far. However, it hasn’t replaced all the revenue the Friends would generate through selling books in person.
“Since we started the online store, which is really the only way we can sell books right now, it has definitely outpaced the physical store, because we have a lot more inventory,” Curtin said. “We haven’t been able to replace all the book sale revenue, but we’ve done really, really well with it. We’ve generated almost $23,000 since we opened.”
Part of why the Friends online bookstore has been a success is due to the quality and low prices of the books.
“The quality of the books is really high and, because we’re an all-volunteer organization, almost all the money we raise goes to the library to supplement their books,” said Michele Lynn, a member of the Friends board.
The pandemic has also driven the Friends to set up a safe pickup process for books bought online and establish safety protocols for the volunteers sorting those books, Curtin said.
The funding provided to the library by the Friends helps fund programs and grant projects, such as the new University Place book lockers and the Explore More program.
“The way that we talk about how the Friends support us is we use a metaphor of the town provides us a cookie, which is a really delicious cookie through our annual budget,” Brown said. “The Friends is the icing and the sprinkles, which is what makes the cookie taste really, really great.”
The organization, she added, is “an amazing group of passionate volunteers, and what they have done during the pandemic is, just extraordinary. When I tell fellow library directors, in the state and across the country, what my Friends group has done, they are all just in awe and pretty envious.”
The Beautifully Bookish Online Auction can be previewed until Friday, when bidding begins at 8 a.m. Bidding will end on Dec. 11 at 6 p.m.