By Derek Green
Greg Simpson is living the dream. Every day, when millions of Australians trudge off to a thing called “work”, Greg wanders over to the Brotherhood of St Lawrence warehouse in Sunshine for another of day of sorting, cataloging, listing and packing his favourite things in the world – books.
“It started about 6 years ago when our CEO at the time was asked what he was going to do with the mountains of books that were donated each week, and carted into the central warehouse, our headquarters for the region.” Greg recalls. “And now we’re here”.
It’s not clear whether that initial plan was to turn the mountains into a molehill by building a successful online business via social enterprise, but that was Greg’s task from day one. Through planning, timely coordination of volunteers, and some online savvy, that’s exactly what he’s done.
Today, Brotherhood Books online sells a staggering 800-1200 books per week. At an average of about $8 each, even after the overheads are paid, Greg and his team are making a real difference and helping those in need.
Greg’s day starts with the inevitable arrival of caged-trailer loads containing thousands of books magazines and other items, most donated with good will, some of it pure trash.
“Most people mean well, but a lot of this I can’t use” he says as he casually tosses a dog-eared John LeCarre thriller onto the recycle pile.
“When you think about what you yourself would be happy paying for and receiving in the mail, it has to be of a decent standard. Just because it’s second hand, doesn’t mean it can’t be quality.” He has a point, most of the books I witness being prepared for the e-store are pristine. And these books are not just pulled from a mouldy charity box and chucked online, Greg’s team will wipe the covers of any smudges or marks, spray-n-wipe to remove price stickers – even sand the edges from any books with rough pages.
It’s with this amount of care that Greg and his team process about 500-600 accepted books every day for the e-store.
“About 10% of total donations are sellable online. We have to assess condition, quality and of course popularity. ‘The DaVinci Code’ – we get half a dozen a day, it never sells, we just recycle it with the rest.” Greg notices my surprise at the disdainful treatment of one of the best selling books of all time.
“I figure with a lot of popular fiction like that, anyone who honestly wants to read it has by now.”
Which leads me to wonder, what about the rest – the 90% that’s remaining?
“Recycling is a revenue stream in its own right,” Greg explains, “anything we can’t sell goes back out, we have an arrangement. All the hardcovers are removed and separated from the rest, they’re worth a bit more.”
At Brotherhood Books there are 50-60 people volunteers that offer a few hours each week to pack, ship, sort, clean, value and upload the books, with 12-14 assisting on any given day. At a glance, the current backlog of books waiting to be sorted seems immense.
Greg notices me casting an eye over the recently arrived trailers, a row that’s being added to as we speak. “We could always do with more volunteers” he says smiling.
I have a question I’ve always wanted to ask someone who works in this field – charity stores, ‘op’ shops and the like. You see, every fossicker and ‘picker’ like me has a dream; which is of course to uncover a gem, a diamond in the multiple rough piles of pre-loved goods. Like a 1876 first edition leather bound copy of C.S. Lewis’s ‘Hunting of the Snark’. Or a 1914 two volume ‘Home of the Blizzard’ by explorer Sir Douglas Mawson. Both sold for $950.
Autographed volumes also raise an eyebrow, and if it’s believed there’s some real value, efforts will be made to authenticate the signature before the book is listed. When we’re talking names like Pavarotti, James Patterson, Bryce Courtney, and in one bizarre twist, General Rommel’s widow, then the effort is justified – none of these will remain unsold for long.
Then there’s the little gifts that are left behind by readers, such as vintage bookmarks, pressed flowers from the 1800s, and old notes, each sending their own well preserved message from the past. Once, it was $2,000 in crisp $100 bills. “We waited for months, we made every effort to contact the person and hoped they would come forward. But you just don’t know where it’s come from. At least it’s ended up going to charity” Greg says.
I ask Greg if there are any difficulties running an online store like this. “Freight costs are always a problem, we have to keep the price as low as possible to hold customers through checkout. Nobody wants to pay for shipping. They don’t get anything for that money”. Greg’s brow furrows as he ponders the bane of every online seller’s life.
“We now have a deal where if you buy 3 books, it’s free freight” he continues. “Sometime we lose, but we’d lose more if people didn’t buy anything because our freight costs were too high.”
So how does Greg sum up a day at Brotherhood Books? “Ha ha, well we couldn’t do it without such a wonderful group of volunteers!” he says, “but the truth is I pinch myself every day”
Brotherhood Books can be found online at www.brotherhoodbooks.org.au. The proceeds of all purchases will go towards helping the disadvantaged improve their lives. Anyone wanting to volunteer their time can contact Greg on 9474 7834