The Bookstore That Restored My Faith in Humanity

I’ve changed my mind–people are inherently good. This realization came, not from the greatest debates in philosophy, but from a little bookstore.  Way back in 2017, LPL Friends & Foundation had an idea to create an honor-system bookstore inside the library. The store began with two simple shelves in an unused downstairs hallway, so we named it DownHall Books.

We recruited a wonderful team of volunteers to tidy the shelves, collect money from the payment box, and restock new titles as items were sold. Confession time:  I started this project as a total cynic. I thought if there was no one to watch the shoppers, they would just take the books without paying or chaotically throw books around for our volunteers to clean up. Initially we filled the shelves with donated books of acceptable quality that we wouldn’t miss if they were damaged or stolen.

I was so wrong! In its first year of existence, DownHall Books raised just under $2,000 for library programs and services. We started putting like-new books on the shelves, and patrons kept coming. Sure we had some tidying to do after a voracious reader came through and left our shelves bare, but we gladly celebrated in those books finding a new home!

Before the library closed for the pandemic, the two unassuming little shelves expanded to include two rotating shelves, for travel-sized paperbacks, CDs and DVDs, and a small shelf for children’s books. By March 2020, an astounding $7,300 had been collected in our little red payment box!

With the lower level of our library closed until May 2021 and in-person book sales on hiatus, the DownHall shelves were repurposed to hold orders from our Facebook Live sales. When the library reopened the lower level in June, DownHall Books shifted back to an honor-system bookstore, and I shifted back to a cynic.

The pandemic was hard for us all. Personally, I came back to daily life drained and exhausted...filled with uncertainty, cynicism, distrust, disbelief, confusion.  I saw so many of humanity’s ugly parts on the national and global stage, it was hard to have hope. It was nearly impossible for me to believe in the good of humanity. 

When library staff began to have conversations about what to do with the space formerly occupied by the Merc coffee shop and suggested a DownHall-like store upstairs, I was not in the mindset to place faith in the honesty of others. Luckily, we have an amazing group of staff and volunteers that kept the hope alive! It is my job to support volunteers in their endeavors to promote literacy and a love of learning in our community, so I went along, grudgingly. 

I absolutely love a project, so I occupied myself with the logistics as we brainstormed names, layouts, bought beautiful shelves, recruited more volunteers, and made a plan to launch an honor-system bookstore in the library entrance. We launched Friends Express Bookstore on June 4, 2022 at the Summer Reading Kick-off.  We had a great group of volunteers present to answer questions about the new store, accept payments and tie about 150 balloons for our youngest patrons.

That day, we raised $583 for library programs like the one that was happening just outside of the window. It was almost poetic to sell a $1 book, then turn around to watch how our phenomenal library staff used the funds we’d raised last year to engage young minds through games, book recommendations, activities and flat-out fun! We were all working that day to create community and instill a love of reading.  

Yet, it was not enough to move my cynical heart.  As we packed up for the day, my stomach did a plunge of dread, imagining what these shelves would look like left unsupervised for two days. Would I come back to empty shelves and $2 in the payment box?  Would we have a big mess to clean up?

I arrived Monday afternoon to a payment box filled with honesty. The shelves had been shopped, but lovingly. Each time we visit the shelves to collect payments, and restock or tidy the shelves, we are greeted with compliments, thanks, and appreciation:

“It was feeling so empty here.  Thank you for putting something so wonderful in this space.”

“I am so glad to have this option to buy books that I want to keep.”

“Please tell your volunteers that we are so appreciative of what they do.”

“Great idea!”

Can faith in humanity be restored in a week?  Yep!  I’ve been getting there slowly, but the Friends Express Bookstore project propelled me right over the finish line. This was my own personal lesson in humanity on a community scale. There may be bad news all around, and it can feel like everything is falling apart, and humanity is doomed, but you can find goodness in your community if you leave yourself open to the possibility.  

If you’d like to shop at the Friends Express Bookstore, just visit the LPL entrance any time the library is open. All of our books are offered at normal book sale prices ($1-$2). We accept cash and check in the payment box, and have a QR code for credit card purchases. These shelves are cared for daily by a super-star group of volunteers: Celia Heintz (the OG DownHall mastermind), Joni Hughes, Annamarie Hill, Cindy Penzler, Betty Yung and her son Torrin.  

If you think the store looks great, please thank Heather Kearns for having an eye for design and beauty. While you're at it, thank the folks at the Hello Desk for tidying the shelves between our visits and the staff at the Accounts Desk for answering all the questions we didn't anticipate at launch. It took a village!

Volunteers are always needed to help with this new endeavor, and also to process daily book donations, and assist at our three major book sales each year.  For more information on sales, volunteers or donations, visit LPLFF.org, or email me, ahyde@lplks.org.  

Want to go down a rabbit hole about goodness and other fun philosophical debates?  Check out these books:

The Science of Good and Evil

The Power of Ethics

Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments

The Character Gap

How to Live A Good Life

Behave

-Angela Hyde is the Friends & Foundation Program Coordinator.

We welcome your respectful and on-topic comments and questions in this limited public forum. To find out more, please see Appropriate Use When Posting Content. Community-contributed content represents the views of the user, not those of Lawrence Public Library