by Christian Overfield
If you walk from one end of Avenida Del Mar to the other, odds are that your wallet will end up lighter at the end than it was at the beginning. From olive oil to taffy to high-end children’s clothing, some merchant on San Clemente’s most charming street has something you’re going home with. But I would contend that all the stores on Del Mar fall under the shadow of a single store, a store that hides in plain sight, and inside of which our small beach city offers a trove of humankind’s single greatest invention, many for the grand sum of one single American dollar.
I am speaking of San Clemente’s Friends of the Library Bookstore.
Opened 18-years-ago, it is a San Clemente institution packed with books of all kinds, on all subjects and for all ages. Not all bookstores are created equal, however, and this one smartly sets itself apart from even most for-profit stores. Due to manager Cass Jones’ lead, the store is immaculately clean; the books are clearly organized; and, most critically, the books themselves—cherry-picked by its volunteer staff—are in tip-top shape.
Want some Philip Roth? Need a little John Updike? Some Celeste Ng, maybe? You’ll find titles by each of these authors, in mint condition, for a mere dollar (sometimes you’ll have to cough up even two or three, depending on the age; the newer the book, the more it costs).
Most importantly, the FOTLB is rich in variety. Yes, popular authors inhabit a greater quantity of the store’s real estate—what’s a bookstore without a full collection of James Patterson novels? But between the familiar standbys is a robust offering of many of the talented but lesser-known writers working today; Nina Revoyr, Zoe Ferraris, Ron Carlson, Irene Nemirovsky, Chang-Rae Lee, Amy Wilentz and Eduardo Santiago
How is this well-crafted variety achieved? FOTLB is a completely non-profit organization lovingly run by over 40 volunteers, avid readers all, and it’s their palpable love for the bookstore that makes the pleasure of browsing its wares so enjoyable. Obviously taste is subjective, but having a store staffed by fervent readers means that its customers are offered unusually choice cuts. Even if you don’t know what you’re looking for, the odds are you will like what’s for sale merely because it has survived the staff’s editing process. FOTLB may not have Barnes and Nobles’ volume, cafés, or leather journals, but it’s got the good stuff, and its volunteers know that Custer, if you ask, was a historical figure and not a yellow dessert filling.
The volunteers of FOTLB are devoted to the store such that many have lent their time to opening shop, wiping down counters, pricing books, and bagging purchases for over a decade. Dorrie Brent has volunteered for 15 years, while Joan Cosaro has turned in a record 17. (To put this staggering commitment into perspective, Leonardo DiCaprio was freezing on an ice floe when Ms. Cosaro first manned the FOTLB registers.) Unsurprisingly, the bookstore’s volunteers are, according to Nonie Fickling, also its biggest customers.
Given this devotion, the store’s success is not a surprise. Last year it generated over $50,000, all of which went to funding the library’s numerous programs along with purchasing books and other needed library material. As the bookstore’s President Nonie Fickling put it, “The library gives us their approved bills, and we pay them.”
FOTLB’s success doesn’t happen, however, from the vapors of nothing, and its operating methods have changed over time. At one time the store had no limits on the quantities of donations—“One man brought in eighteen boxes of books.” But with finite shelf space, two boxes are now the maximum, provided they are free of mold, water stains, or other disqualifiers, the list of which can be found on the bookstore’s website.
The dividends of FOTLB are not limited to its inexpensive books. For the past 16 consecutive years, the bookstore has hosted a successful Meet the Author’s Luncheon at the Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club. This sell-out event is $65 and features three authors, each of whom speaks about their work for 20 minutes, answers questions, and signs copies of their books that the store makes available for sale. Again, the entirety of this event is occasioned by the bookstore’s volunteers and patrons.
With a leaning towards local California authors, the volunteers spend time researching suitable and talented authors, initiate the necessary contact with authors’ agents and publicists, and, on occasion, even procure the financial means necessary to fly featured guests to the event. Authors that have graced the luncheon have included PEN/Faulkner winners (Karen Joyce Fowler), National Book Award finalists (Susan Straight), and authors so successful that Costco sells their work in bulk (Elizabeth George). Indeed, the caliber of authors that FOTLB has secured over the years speaks to the respect that these authors have for the volunteers and the event, as well as the quality of the event itself, now heading into its 17th annual event on February 25th, 2017.
The FOTLB’s latest accomplishment is perhaps its most altruistic and far-reaching. Working with the state of California and the Orange County Public Library, and spearheaded by 1st Vice-President Mary Lou Wakefield, San Clemente’s Friends of the Library is offering scholarships to ten qualified Orange County citizens—five from San Clemente—for the opportunity of earning an accredited high school diploma through Career Online High School. Individuals who never completed high school, and who are over the age of 19, will be trained for entry into college education or the adult workforce. Normal tuition for this new program is $1,000, but for 10 worthy candidates, the FOTLB is going to help pick up the tab. Interested candidates need only be 19 or over, a resident of Orange County, and, vitally, have a library account in good standing.
When speaking with President Fickling, I discovered that often times the store receives overtly valuable books that are sold online and thus never reach the shelves. I asked if she could remember any particular donation which had an unusual monetary value. After conferring with Alma Savage, the store’s pricing expert, she said that one stood out: a gardening book on Staghorn ferns that sold for $79.
“Seventy-nine dollars isn’t a lot,” she said, “but it’s a lot for a book.”
Apart from the help it gives to the library and outside causes, money is clearly not the motivating factor for FOTLB’s volunteers. They offer various memberships; and when I asked whether a member receives discounts, the answer was no.“Not even $5 off the luncheon?” I asked. “No,” she laughed. And neither do the volunteers. “We’re all in this together.”
Monday - Saturday 10am - 4pm
1st Sunday of the month 9am - 1pm
242 Avenida Del Mar, San Clemente,