Editor’s note: The following story is sponsored by Academy Bank, a Kansas City based community bank, and is part of a series of features spotlighting some of the bank’s startup and small business partners.
Even a storied community resource relies on innovation for its survival, said Shanta Dickerson, noting classic trust and accountability also have been integral to the Friends of the Johnson County Library’s ongoing plot.
“We try to keep it as easy as possible to get books into people’s hands, keeping in mind that part of our mission is resale,” said Dickerson, operations manager at the Friends of the Johnson County Library, a separate, nonprofit support arm of the Johnson County Library.
From its Overland Park sorting center, the organization processes about 600,000 items a year — youth and adult books to puzzles and games — from community donations and ex-library inventory. The Friends supports the local library system by purchasing at least $50,000 in formerly shelved library books annually, then reselling them (along with donations) to cover its operating expenses and future buys.
Click here to read more about the history and organization of the Friends of the Johnson County Library.
“Pre-pandemic, our revenue streams were pretty evenly split between in-person book sales at stores and events, and through our online sales division. That obviously shifted significantly in 2020,” said Dickerson, noting accelerated changes in consumer trends because of the COVID-19 shutdown. “We were able to continue to keep up with inventory flow with online sales, which have really taken off.”
Leaning into such opportunities, the Friends obtained a grant from the Johnson County Library to launch a new website in early 2021. Internet sales are now projected to nearly triple from $118,000 in 2018 to $330,000 budgeted for 2022. The operation currently is seeing about $25,000 a month in online revenue, Dickerson said.
“As you might guess, most of our time is consumed with book donations and sales,” she added, with a laugh.
Click here to shop the online book selection.
Have books to donate? Click here to learn how.
Protecting more than pages
Success for the Friends of the Johnson County Library wasn’t pre-written, Dickerson emphasized, acknowledging the public’s hunger for books would be now left unread if the Friends hadn’t made it through the near-universally harrowing pandemic.
When COVID-19 restrictions called for workers to stay home, the Friends — like many businesses and nonprofits — paused donations and shut down its sorting center and year-round, in-person bookstores at the Antioch and Blue Valley libraries. Employees worked on what they could remotely, Dickerson said, but it was mostly a waiting game.
“I’m really proud that, working with our executive team, we didn’t cut salaries,” she said. “We kept our people paid through the pandemic, understanding this was their lifeline. You take care of your people and they take care of you. Everything was just so up in the air and nobody knew what was happening.”
But without immediate internal expertise on obtaining loans or other emergency relief, the Friends were in a tight spot, Dickerson said. She was eager to learn the process herself, but first the nonprofit turned to Academy Bank to pursue Paycheck Protection Program assistance.
“We recognized the need to protect our paychecks — and, well, PPP was exactly for that purpose. So we really had to figure out how to secure loans and loan forgiveness,” she said, highlighting her experience with Academy’s Jacob Nemechek.
“I asked our banker, ‘Do you sleep?’ Because I was surprised at how quickly they were responsive to an email and the questions we had,” she continued. “I think that’s the kind of response and care you get with a locally-driven, grassroots business model like they use.”
It was important for the bank to offer ongoing behind-the-scenes assistance during (and after) the PPP process, Nemechek said, especially in light of well-publicized challenges that accompanied the federal relief effort’s complex rollout during the global pandemic.
“We were able to adjust and adapt to all changes quickly while guiding clients like the Friends of the Johnson County Library along the way,” he said. “It took a great team effort but our goal was to make the process simpler for our clients.”
When CDC guidance and county and state protocols shifted, the Friends were ready to safely reopen, Dickerson said.
“At first it was just staff, no volunteers — so we all learned how to list and ship and support online sales [tasks previously entirely by volunteers],” she said. “We relaunched and were like, ‘You know, even with everything going on, people are still buying books, they’re still reading.’ And that tidal wave of sales we faced was also reflected in the community’s eagerness to continue supporting us.”
Piecing together a new chapter
Months later, it isn’t unusual for now-returned nearly 100 volunteers to take puzzles home to check the pieces to make sure each box is complete, Dickerson said, touting the Friends’ — and its volunteers’ — commitment to the public’s trust.
“They’re out there checking the pieces to every game. They take pride in what they’re doing, whether it’s to ensure no books have damaged pages or no puzzles are missing pieces,” she said, noting the organization consumes about 18,000 volunteer hours a year. “It’s important to our team to put items out that are of value.”
Click here to learn more about volunteering with the Friends of the Johnson County Library.
On the flip side, they also try to respectfully honor the intent of donors who bring the Friends some of their most cherished memories, Dickerson said.
“There’s a sense of love with books; people are giving them to us with the trust that we’re going to help them find a good home,” she said.
The Friends hope the next chapter of this mission includes a new base of operations — teasing the possibility of moving the sorting and distribution center to a location that also could include its own on-site storefront. The former Lackman library building in Lenexa — vacated when the Johnson County Library relocated to Lenexa City Center — has enticing potential, Dickerson said.
“But even if this operation wasn’t here, or there — even if we never sold another book — we would remain as an advocate for keeping libraries at the forefront of people in power who make decisions about things like library funding and the importance of access to information,” she said, emphasizing the binding beliefs within the Friends’ decades-long tale. “Ultimately, we stand for democracy and equity of access.”
“That spirit of advocacy and support still runs strong in everything we do.”
Click here to learn more about becoming a member of the Friends of the Johnson County Library.