Booksavers of Ephrata made over $225k last year off textbooks alone. Here’s what the process looks like.
Chad Umble, Staff Writer, LNP/LancasterOnline
originally published March 9, 2020 on LNP
Two Landis Homes residents, Lowell Detweiler and Hershey Leaman, are mentioned in this article.
Landis Homes resident, Hershey Leaman works in the shipping area at Booksavers of Ephrata. Photo credit: Dan Marschka, Staff Photographer, LNP/LancasterOnline.
Large and small cardboard boxes in the back of the ReUzit on State in Ephrata hold a staggering array science, math and history textbooks as well as novels, paperbacks and assorted primers and other tomes.
Gathered from schools, churches, libraries and homes within a 50-mile radius of Ephrata, the books arrive at the store by the skidload before volunteers sort them and decide which ones might find new buyers.
ReUzit sells some of the books on its store shelves but offers many more to a nationwide audience through Amazon and other online sellers as part of a long-running effort to raise money for Mennonite Central Committee’s global relief, development and peacemaking efforts.
Refined and greatly expanded since its beginning in 1997, Booksavers of Ephrata added online sales in 2003, when it sold 449 books. Last year, it sold 13,905 books online, generating $227,000
“At the beginning, it wasn’t significant, but it did start making a little money,” said Lowell Detweiler, who helped guide the program in its early days. “When they really got the internet part of Booksavers going, then it started making significant money.”
Collecting from more than 100 schools, libraries, churches or retirement communities, Booksavers of Ephrata has assembled 22,000 books that are kept in back of the ReUzit, but only available for sale online. There’s room for 8,000 more.
Utilizing volunteers for collecting, sorting, listing online and shipping, Booksavers represents an innovative —albeit labor-intensive — way to raise money for a nonprofit organization, keep books out of landfills, and find new homes for old books.
“It has some purpose to it,” said Hershey Leaman, a Booksavers volunteer who packages books for shipment. “You’re getting good materials into people’s minds. It’s recycling books for additional use.”
Mennonite Central Committee, whose U.S. headquarters is in Akron, relies on more than 100 thrift stores in the U.S. and Canada for a major portion of its annual support. Booksavers of Ephrata is one of three similar organizations connected to thrift stores that use online book sales to generate extra income.
The largest Booksavers is in Hagerstown, Maryland, and another is in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the home of Eastern Mennonite University.
Leo Martin, who started the Maryland program in 1996, said it was launched as a way to supplement income for MCC in addition to relief sales and thrift stores.
After initially partnering with a textbook reseller, Booksavers of Maryland soon began its own program that included a system of chopping up books for recyclable paper since some books couldn’t find buyers and would end up in landfills.
“We didn’t like that to happen and that’s how we came to start recycling beside the marketing of the books themselves that were in good enough condition,” Martin said.
Martin, who helped the Booksavers of Ephrata get started, said the time and space required means the program would not be viable just with paid employees.
“It takes a fairly sizable community where you can get a lot of volunteers. There’s a lot of effort to it,” he said. “It’s a lot of hard work. Books aren’t light.”
Taking it all
Booksavers of Ephrata has two pai staffers but relies on 15 regular volunteers who work a combined 80 hours a week. A lot of the extra work comes from the fact that Booksavers will take every book from a church, school, home or library, not just the salable ones some commercial resllers buy.
“Other companies have said they’d pay you a little for this or that, but we prefer a company that will take everything we have,” said Nancy Pelepko, librarian at Lebanon Catholic School, which donates all kinds of books to the Ephrata ReUzit. “They were textbooks, duplicate library books, old library books, falling apart books, whatever we had.”
Booksavers uses a truck to collect books from schools and libraries in a 50-mile radius. Last year, the truck was on the road 78 days, making stops at schools and libraries.
As its new digs, Booksavers processes books next to a loading dock where the books can be easily uploaded and then relayed down to a sorting, shipping and storage area.
Last year, Booksavers of Ephrata collected 400 skids of books from schools and libraries. That was in addition to books dropped off at the store. Yet of the total donations, only 5% are deemed worthy to list online, with another 20% sold in the book section of the ReUzit shop.
Three-quarters of the books wind up being send to MCC’s Material Resources Center to be chopped up for recycling, but they all get inspected or checked by volunteers first.
Pricing to Sell
Finding buyers online for the books starts with volunteers like Lyndell Thiessen, who spends three mornings a week at one of three computer stations where she checks the potential for each book.
The Akron resident begins by scanning or entering each book’s reference number to find it on Amazon. Thiessen then checks the lowest offered price for a used version of the book, and then looks at its sales rank.
While there can be some exceptions, books typically aren’t listed unless the used price is at least $5 — shipping adds $3.99 — and the sales rank is less than 2 million.
“We want to be on the first page of Amazon so we’re the ones that get chose,” said Thiessen, noting that the sweet spot for pricing is above $5, and just below the next lowest offering. “I like to undercut the competition.”
While many of the textbooks look to be in pristine condition, those covering subject areas such as history, literature and reading often aren’t worth listing.
“Math books”, Thiessen said. “Algebra sells. I get really excited when I see algebra and calculus.”
Booksavers of Ephrata manager Tina Martin-Wylie said her volunteers will sometimes discover they have a book also being listed by one of the other two Booksavers.
“Occasionally we are their competitor — and we price it below them.” she said. “And I’m sure they’d do the same.”