Meet Your Neighbor: Friends Books

How long has the bookstore existed?

We’re going into our 12th year. The same group of people who work at the store now were the ones who started out years ago, doing sales on the library lawn and in the library meeting room.

What is the purpose of the store?

We support library programs. After our expenses, 25% goes into savings for our future library and 75% is available for funding library projects. For example, we support the children’s summer reading program—an $18,000 project that’s now expanded to adults.

We fund all kinds of kids’ programs—a satellite library in Northgate, which has been convenient for the many East Indian families in that neighborhood with mothers who don’t drive. We also have a book club for adults there and Marilyn Boatright, a store volunteer, administers it.

The Pickleweed Library at the Al Boro Center is another project we support. It serves Hispanic families in that neighborhood and the librarian, Joshua Halpern, speaks fluent Spanish.

Who designed the shop?

We put it together in just a month and I had just had a knee replacement. But we’d worked together for so long, it was absolutely miraculous and came together easily. Waldenbooks had recently closed, so we got some of their shelves and we picked up some other used and donated ones. People have also walked in with kid-sized chairs and said, “Here, you need these.”

How has the space worked out for you?

We’re very tied to the library and we can walk there from here. We love this space. Twenty-eight feet of windows and a fabulous landlord—Reza Jahansouz. He’s an architect who studied at UC Berkeley, an avid reader and appreciator of books and culture. From very beginning, he’s been very supportive of us. And in turn, a bookstore is a quiet place and a gentle use of the site.

Who oversees the store?

We have the Friends board, about 12 members, all volunteers. But the shop is managed by two of us, Karen Nielsen, an attorney, and me. I’ve been an antique dealer for many years, so I have a background in retail. The store staff has worked together for so long. I’ve spent Monday morning with the same three people for 20 years.

Do you still have the book sale on the library lawn?

It’s a huge project that takes 25 people to set up, but we still do them because the public doesn’t want to let them go. We’ve made as much as $8,800 for a 9:00 to 3:30 sale, and it makes people happy. It would be a big mistake to get rid of it and we want the goodwill of the public to build a new library.

We do a separate rare and special book sale, usually at the end of January at the church across the street from the library. We open at 12:30 and close at 5 and some professional buyers stay for four or five hours.

What is your bookstore best known for?

A really great kids’ section and great art and history books. We had two donors at the beginning who collected art books and they set us up. Karen, my co-manager, takes care of all the fiction. I do art and gardening, cooking, poetry and spirituality.

Do you compete with other San Rafael bookstores?

There were seven bookstores in town. When Open Secret closed, they gave us bags of books. People ask, “Isn’t there too much competition.” But I don’t think so. If we don’t have what someone wants, we’ll call Rebound and ask if they have it. Or we send people to other stores. I think it speaks well of San Rafael that we’re supporting so many bookstores.

What do you sell besides books?

We have music CDs, DVDs and audio books. Sometimes we get 40 to 50 boxes of donated items in one day. If a book has a barcode, we scan it, especially the nonfiction so we can find their original prices. If it’s an art book that lists for $125, we can ask $75. If books aren’t of the quality we need for store, we give to 10 organizations, including Family House, Ritter Center, St. Vincent’s, the community clinic. We also sell online, and textbooks and academic books especially do well in August and September.

What inspires you?

A new library inspires me. We promote literacy and the enjoyment of books but our larger goal is to remodel our library. Part of it used to be a parking garage, that’s why the ceilings are so low. We could remodel and build onto the original Carnegie library footprint. We need to do it—1,000 people come into the library a day. And we could add more library space at the Al Boro Center too.

I’m inspired by working in the store. It’s very exciting and fulfilling when I overhear a literary discussion between customers, recommending books to each other. And one of our volunteers said, “I’m reading so much more widely because I’m exposed to so many more genres.”

Where does inventory come from?

It’s all donated, none of it is discarded from the library. We have a rotation of stock and when we take out old inventory, we give it to our online seller and to other Friends groups. We gave a lot to Ukiah’s library because they had no budget for new books. They got an influx of good books because we’re a community of readers here. This process raises everybody up.

Should people bring book donations to the store?

We process incoming donations at the trailer next to the library. We can accept one to three bags at the store, but more than that should go to the library parking lot, at 5th and E, at the library’s front entrance. We’re there in the mornings, 9:30 – 11:30.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment so far?

For us, it’s the working relationship we have with one another. It’s the best volunteering experience I’ve ever had. The enthusiasm is infectious. When we have the lawn sale, we see a wonderful community of readers who are grateful for the amount of time we put in. We keep track of volunteer hours and our quarterly listing is over 2,000 hours. 

I’ve been involved for 25 years. I was hooked on books as a child, the minute I discovered you could decipher the words on a page. We all want other children to have that same experience. We’re passing it on.


1016 C Street, San Rafael


Pam Dixon (415) 453-1443

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