On Feb. 1, just an ordinary Friday, Jim Stewart checked a box of fresh donations.
Only it wasn’t an ordinary Friday, because four of the books left by an anonymous donor outside the Riford Library’s Friends of La Jolla Library (FOLL) Bookstore were signed by their author.
That would be Samuel Clemens, more popularly known as Mark Twain.
“Something like that will happen once a year or so,” said Stewart, the former assistant head master at Gillispie School who, for the past three years, has volunteered as FOLL’s manager.
Established at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library — many years before the Riford opened in 1989 as the main La Jolla branch — FOLL has grown into a full-service bookstore with thousands of constantly cycling books, DVDs and magazine titles.
As customers take from the shelves, the empty spaces are filled by new product stocked in a back office that’s always either manned or locked. Here, hundreds of new weekly donations are sorted, cleaned and priced by 21 volunteers, each of whom has a knowledge specialty.
“Mine is hardcover fiction, humor, foreign language, short story, poetry and drama,” said La Jolla resident Kara Farley, who has volunteered here for two years. “I love it because it’s the bookstore I always wanted to have. I love books, so that’s the first thing. But I also like the idea of someone saying, ‘Do you have any books by so-and-so?’ and being able to find them.”
As Farley finished her thought, Casa de Manana resident Pat Canan, an occasional customer, walked in as a donor instead. He dropped off a book about number theory.
“It was an old textbook from a long time ago,” he explained. “I kept it all these years because I thought I’d want to refresh. But not anymore.”
You’re not likely to find a treasure on these shelves that will change your tax bracket. Those are separated from the herd before the books see the publicly displayed shelves. (Stewart immediately sent the four signed Clemens books to PBA Galleries, a Berkeley-based rare-book appraiser and auctioneer, for their opinion.)
“If there’s a chance that it’s a book of significant value, we’ll do research,” Farley said. “We’ll check on eBay and some of the auction sites, and if that’s the case, Jim will try to sell it online.”
However, FOLL’s prices are garage-sale good. (Three random books selected by the Light sold for $1 each — the most common pricetag — while selling on Amazon for an average of $8 each.)
Later, Susan McLeod (another Casa de Manana resident) entered the FOLL office with four purchases: “The Gingerbread Girl Goes Animal Crackers” by Lisa Campbell Ernst (for her granddaughter), “Forever Fifty and Other Negotiations” by Judith Viorst (for her daughter), “Carnegie’s Maid” by Marie Benedict (for her book club), and “A Man of Parts: A Novel” by David Lodge (just for her).
Her grand total: $3.50.
Even at these low prices, FOLL was able to raise $45,852 last year for the Riford and 32 other San Diego Library branches. (About half of that is matched by the City of San Diego, Stewart said, sometimes doubling the total.) All proceeds raised by all “friends of” bookstores are distributed equally to all branches.
“We want to make sure that money is going to other libraries, too,” Stewart explained, “because San Ysidro might not have the resources that La Jolla does.”
Any books that can’t be sold — either due to their condition when they first arrive or to being on FOLL’s shelves too long — are donated to the VA hospital, where they are given out free to patients.
As this interview drew to a close, Stewart expressed second thoughts about having revealed his bookstore’s Mark Twain jackpot.
“Now the donors are going to see your article and go, ‘Oh my God, look at what we gave them,’ ” he said.
Except that the Light noticed the date printed on the remaining unsigned books from the same published Samuel Clemens collection: 1917. Unless the author famous for writing “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” was able to sign his name seven years after he died, the donor needn’t feel that bad.