John Jaraczewski, Executive Director of the Greenville Literacy Association

by John Jaraczewski, Executive Director, Greenville Literacy Association, with Sharon Purvis

For book lovers across the Upstate and beyond, the Greenville Literacy Association’s annual used book sale—the Really Good, Really Big, Really Cheap Book Sale—yields a treasure trove of bargains, from recent hardcover releases for $8 down to mass market paperbacks that are two for $1. For teachers and homeschooling families, it’s a great way to stock up on books for the classroom. It’s generally one of the highlights of my summer, with my sister driving down from Asheville to go with me—our little joke is that we get free books in exchange for a donation to the Greenville Literacy Association. But in addition to the bargains, the other thing you can count on at the sale is a huge crowd of people—you’re shoulder to shoulder with strangers, and that’s just not safe this year.

When I heard that the sale was happening virtually this year (starting August 1, but you can purchase a ticket to the preview party on July 31st), I had to find out how that would work, and John Jaraczewski, executive director of the Greenville Literacy Association, answered my questions.

 Q: It seems like a huge undertaking to turn your really big book sale into an online sale. How early in the pandemic did you make the decision to make the change?

We truly never stop working on the annual sale. So, of course, we were discussing the potential of a sale as early as May. We wanted to remain open to all possibilities from a traditional sale all the way to a virtual event. Our development director, Eleanor Vaughn, initiated a pilot program offering collections of books through Instagram. We discovered a very dedicated following as some of the collections were purchased in a matter of minutes!  That is where the idea of offering collections of books originated. This gave us confidence that we could offer an online experience that was very different than our traditional sale but equally engaging.  We made the decision to move entirely online in June. At that point, there was no looking back. We needed to plan first and then act. It has been a whirlwind of activity with our steadfast volunteers rallying to the cause and new volunteers joining in the effort. Nearly every inch of our suite in McAlister Square is being used to stage the collections and to fulfill the orders. It is a sight to behold.  

Q: As a regular patron of your sale, I know that you’re very good at sorting the books into categories, so that part was already done. But can you talk a little about the process of putting all of those books online? For example, did you use your same group of volunteers, or did you have to recruit some new ones with different skills?

The amount of knowledge and insight our volunteer book room leaders have regarding our inventory would astound you. This was earned over the years through a meticulous collection, cleaning, and sorting process that is underway all year long. But, just as we all have learned, 2020 is a time to stay calm and plan to adjust. The online sale was built on our current knowledge with a new set of ideas and expertise. We couldn’t have done one without the other. We engaged any volunteers who were comfortable working online in our mobile app. Other volunteers wanted to remain more hands-on, sorting and creating collections. It has been an interesting way to bring new volunteers into the book sale effort.

 Q: How different/similar will this experience be for buyers to their accustomed online book-buying experience, other than that the books are preselected into collections? Are the collections searchable? Is there a time limit once a book is in your basket?

We have been very thoughtful throughout this endeavor. It is a matter of making things as easy as possible for our patrons within limited time and other resources. More than an online store, we tried to translate the book sale experience to the web. So it is not simply search-and-click for a single author or title. For example, our guests will be able to purchase collections of books rather than single titles. Posting collections was one sure way to offer the greatest variety and amount of books in the time we had to prepare. In the spirit of the book sale, we also think it adds to the discovery of new books. The patrons are invited to browse and consider new possibilities in books. We hope our current and new patrons enjoy this version of the Really Good, Really Big, Really Cheap [Really Online] Book Sale.

Regarding purchases, it is very much like our traditional sale—the decisive shopper will win the day. All collections of books are available to all patrons until they are purchased—regardless if a collection is in another cart. So, if you like a collection you should make the purchase before it is snatched up!

Q: I imagine (or I hope!) that people will be pretty understanding if there are unanticipated kinks in the process, but what kinds of scenarios have you walked through to anticipate any issues?

There is a level of expectation associated with our annual sale. This has been honed over the past 19 years. But this year is all new. We are learning and growing every day—which is what the GLA is all about. So, we ask our patrons to remember that at the end of the day, this is a charity event. We offer the sale online as means to support our mission in literacy. Your patience is greatly appreciated as we work through any kinks along the way.

What are we thinking about today? Of course, someone will want to buy a single book in a collection. That simply is not possible this year. Each book was priced as it would be in the traditional sale, but offered in a collection. Or, during pick up we might have a line of cars waiting for book pick up. Please be willing to wait a bit. Perhaps, you have made a very large order? Wonderful! However, we will ask you to arrange a specific pick-up time that works for both parties. All these and more might be reasons for you to be sensitive that we are planning and working as hard as we can to bring the sale to our community. Please consider yourself a partner in sharing literacy and advancing in our mission.

Q: From a logistics perspective, going from just having tables of books in their categories alphabetized by author to having collections for people to choose, what kind of warehouse set-up do you have for the picking of those orders? And how long do you anticipate that a customer’s order will take to fill?

Much like the annual in-person sale, our books are laid out on tables as “inventory.” Instead of out in the McAlister Square public space, however, it’s all happening within our learning center suite.

Once you’ve purchased your books online, you MUST wait one full business day before coming to pick them up (for example, if you purchase on a Saturday, you’d pick up Tuesday. If you purchase on a Tuesday, you’d pick up on Thursday). Our volunteers will need that in-between day to fulfill and pack your order.

The final step of the book-buying process is driving to the back of McAlister Square. Our smiling volunteers (smiling behind their masks) will use your information to locate and deliver your order to your car.

Q: Once things are back to normal again and we’re able to jostle shoulder to shoulder with strangers while choosing our own books, do you think you’ll still maintain some element of the online sale for people who might not be able to make it in person that weekend?

If you asked the team this very minute, as we transform an entire operation to online, the answer would be a resounding NO! Just kidding. Many people may not realize that GLA posts books for sale on Amazon year-round. It is a much smaller collection of books that we can sell competitively on the open market. It has been in place for a number of years. It, too, is run completely by amazing volunteers and is a source of income to support our mission.

But this year’s activities seem to be reaching a new audience via social media. It might be the case that we continue our relationship with our online shoppers moving forward. But let’s face it, the Really Good, Really Big, Really Cheap Book Sale is something very special. Over the years, the event has marked the end of summer and beginning of the school year for so many community members. Book lovers bring their young readers each year and the cycle continues. In that spirit, we are hopeful that we will have the biggest sale ever in 2021 as we celebrate the event’s 20th anniversary!