Recruiting Bookstore Volunteers: Just Ask

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From helping occasionally with offsite events to weekly shelving and organizing, many customers are more than willing to give their local indies some free love. Here Jessica Stockton Bagnulo of Greenlight Bookstore, Susan Weis-Bohlen of breathe books, and Sara Look of Charis Books talk about running active volunteer programs.

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo and Rebecca Fitting talked about the process of opening Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York, for months before the store actually opened – on their blog, on Facebook, and among friends and colleagues in real life – so they already had a pool of people invested in the store’s success, and many of them were on the Greenlight mailing list, said Stockton Bagnulo. ”As we got close to opening day, there were lots of things that needed to be done: cleaning, painting, putting wood stain and sealant on shelves, and then unpacking boxes of books. We invited people, individually and through our mailing list, to sign up to help – and we were thrilled with the response!”

“Opening the bookstore felt like a barn raising,” said Stockton Bagnulo. “Some folks jokingly accused us of being Tom Sawyer-like – people were jockeying for a chance to come and work for free for us! I think the sense of doing something solid and worthwhile – like painting shelves in a bookstore – was strongly appealing to people, and we were grateful for their generosity. We still have people come in and point to ‘their’ shelves – the ones they wood stained as volunteers!”

The need for help at Greenlight has since shifted. “These days, we don’t need massive amounts of unskilled labor on a regular basis,” Stockton Bagnulo said. “There’s not much that would make sense to have done by volunteers, so we don’t tap our potential volunteers as much.”

The exception is at the holidays. “We like to have volunteer gift wrappers on weekends, with tips going to a good cause,” she said. “This takes the pressure off the staff and allows us to give something back (and again, allows volunteers to feel like they’re doing something good and worthwhile).”

Greenlight still maintains a separate and active e-mail list of volunteers, and this past December invited people to sign up for gift-wrapping shifts with tips to benefit a local food bank. “We had no trouble filling those slots, and everyone benefited. (We made sure to ‘pay’ the volunteers in hot drinks and cookies, which are plentiful around the holidays! They also got a one-time 20 percent discount on the day they volunteered.)”

Using a volunteer gift-wrapping program “made less work for us in a number of ways, and gave us a chance to support causes we believe in,” she said. “We’ve learned this from our colleagues at other bookstores – it’s a great model!”

To launch a volunteer program, she suggested creating an e-mail list that customers can opt into. “I think it’s important to have a very concrete timeframe and set of tasks to keep things simple, and so folks know what they’re signing up for and you can manage them efficiently. I think bookstores will be surprised at their customers’ enthusiasm for helping out!”

Susan Weis-Bohlen says that breathe books in Baltimore finds her volunteers through social media. “Whenever I need volunteers for a large event, I usually just post it on Facebook and within minutes I have about 10 people!” she said.

For large off-site events, she’ll recruit eight to 10 people and will hold a short training session beforehand. Said Weis-Bohlen, “We meet about an hour and half before the event and I train people in areas I want them to work in – taking money, swiping credit cards, helping customers chose titles, helping in the book signing line, crowd control, set-up and clean-up. Sometimes I’ll schedule people in shifts if it’s going to be a very long event.”

Running the volunteer program is simple and people are eager to help. “They like to feel like an insider,” Weis-Bohlen said. “It’s a way for them to participate and feel useful while attending an event. I think they get a big kick out it! They are 100 percent responsible and always do a great job. So my advice is ask! People want to help!”

Charis Books and More co-owner Sara Look said that the Atlanta bookstore has used volunteers with varying degrees of success for most of its nearly 37 years. It also has a sister nonprofit that does programming at the bookstore, and the nonprofit uses volunteers as well, including a full board of directors who donate their time. Regular volunteers get a 10 percent discount in the store, access to galleys and comp tickets to events, a lot of appreciation, and the occasional volunteer appreciation party.

To recruit, Charis posts a sign-up sheet at the store and info for would-be volunteers on its website. It also occasionally sends out e-mail announcements via a list that is used to communicate with volunteers. In addition, universities and colleges sometimes send interns, who work for college credit.

Charis keeps a roster of around 10 - 20 on their volunteer list and has three to four regulars. “Retirees are our newest and best group of volunteers,” said Look. “Our 83-year-old volunteer, Miriam, who has been taking our recycling and trash out weekly for the past 10 years only just recently had to ‘retire’ from volunteer duties due to health concerns, and we miss her greatly.”

Volunteers at Charis have various tasks and often help out with events, which several booksellers said were generally easy to recruit and train for. “We have to move all of the furniture weekly for programs and events and love help with that,” said Look. “We have someone who has been volunteering on and off for 30 years at events and in the store. She recently retired, and now goes to the bank daily for us. She used to go to festivals with us.” Another volunteer manages the used book section. Others straighten shelves, work on mailings, and help at Charis birthday celebrations.

“We are lucky that we have a community that supports us and who want us to continue to be their community bookstore,” said Look. “Some of them have money to buy books, some of them have time to give or ideas to share, and it’s all about figuring out how to plug people in, and appreciating and valuing what they have to offer.”

Read about bookstores using volunteers for literacy outreach.