Arlene Norman wasn’t sure what to do with the breast pump.
It had been placed in the donation box for Friends of the Portage District Library, a nonprofit organization that helps the library with special projects and raises money through bimonthly used-book sales.
Norman, co-chair of the Friends’ book sale, went back and forth on whether to try to sell it. “I thought, ‘What the heck!’ Let’s see what happens'.”
She stuck a price sticker on it. And the breast pump’s fate?
“It sold!” she says, chuckling.
It isn’t the first unusual item the volunteer group has uncovered in its donation box. Most of the time they get books, audio CDs or other literary items to resell, but, as Norman notes, once in a while they discover something especially interesting among the donations.
Ellen Yannie, co-chair of the Friends’ book sale, says she has discovered everything from airline tickets to vehicle registration tabs tucked inside books’ pages, but sometimes something even more remarkable falls out — such as the extremely aged letter that tumbled from a book’s pages last fall. Yannie took the letter to Steve Rossio, local historian and youth services associate at the Portage District Library.
The letter, dated Jan. 8, 1863, was addressed to Abbie Watson in Clyde, Wayne County, New York, from her cousin Howard Hopkins, Company E 3rd Michigan Calvary. With the information, Rossio discovered Hopkins’ enlistment and discharge dates and that he came from Lenawee County, Michigan.
“It was a neat find,” Rossio says. “A lot of times with Civil War letters they are signed just Howard or Larry, so you have no idea who the person ever is, (and) with no return address you lose all context.”
Around the same time that letter was found, Yannie stumbled upon another letter in a book. “I was going through this book and out fell a letter from Charles Lindbergh,” she says.
The Nov. 23, 1927, letter dropped from the autobiography We, by Charles Lindbergh. Rossio realized that it was not a personalized letter to an individual. The letter was one of others like it that went to contributors to the Playground and Recreation Association of America. But the library’s Heritage Room — which houses historical information about the city of Portage and surrounding communities, including books, documents, photographs and artifacts — benefits from these items, he says, because the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport was once called Lindbergh Field.
“It’s also unique because a lot of times when they (people) got the book, that type of thing (the letter) was often thrown away. So the book survives, but often that piece does not. It’s still worth keeping and noting.”
About 10 percent of the Heritage Room’s collection has come from items donated to the Friends group, Rossio says, including World War I drill manuals, religious material from 1835, and a fashion “how to” book from 1850 about sewing dresses, to name a few.
The Friends group was established in the late 1950s or early 1960s, Rossio says, and was the driving force in establishing a library in Portage. “I firmly believe if it hadn’t been for those people, we wouldn’t exist in the format that we do now,” he says.
Every year the Friends hold six book sales at the Portage District Library. To prepare for the sales, at least two days per week Yannie, Norman and Babs Smith, publicity chair for the Friends board, can be found sorting, organizing and examining books, games, puzzles, DVDs, vinyl records and other donations.
The Friends Book Sale is a hopping event. Crowds line up outside the building for the sale, which takes place from 9 a.m.–3 p.m. on a scheduled Saturday. As a membership benefit, members of Friends get to shop the evening before.
“I think their success is that they run a fantastic sale,” Rossio says. “They have found the perfect formula.”
That formula includes setting up the sale space like a bookstore, with categories such as sci-fi, westerns, Civil War history, best sellers, music and puzzles clearly labeled. The Friends also make sure not to hang onto books that don’t sell. Setting out fresh items for each sale keeps people coming back, Rossio says.
The Friends distribute unsold books to nonprofit organizations like the Salvation Army, Alternatives, nursing homes and local community centers.
Smith, a librarian prior to retirement, says she believes that groups such as Friends have a great impact on their community.
“What we do not only gives books to people in their hands — that they really like — but also we raise a lot of funds for the library,” she says.
These funds go toward library initiatives such as the Summer Reading Program, special programs such as one for veterans and their families last fall, and bringing in performing acts such as the Gull Lake Jazz Orchestra, an 18-piece jazz band.
Last year the Friends and some library patrons raised funds for the recently purchased library book bike, outfitted with a case on the back for books and an electric motor that reaches 20 miles per hour. Staff will take it to story time at Celery Flats and many more outreach events. Colin Whitehurst, marketing manager at the library, says the staff is still planning the bike’s itinerary and will post a schedule of the book bike’s locations on the library’s website and social media.
“Kind of like how they do with food trucks — where to find us today,” he says.
Friends volunteers and Rossio emphasize one thing: None of this would be possible without the generosity of the Portage community.
“Portage should not have any books left out there,” Yannie jokes, looking around at the abundance of donations filling the donation room. “And they buy as many as they donate.”