Ohio's best used bookstore hiding in Cincinnati's backyard

“Excuse me, is this a bookstore?”

It is a snowy Saturday afternoon in mid-December outside the Friends of the Public Library warehouse in Hartwell. West Chester resident Christine and her four-year-old son Sam have just entered from the cold and are looking around uncertainly.

“Well, we’ve got around 80,000 books here, so I hope we’re a bookstore,” laughs Ken Hughes, a former shopper and now employee at the cashier’s table near the door.

Catherine looks relieved. “Oh good. I wasn’t sure.”

It’s easy to understand Christine’s uncertainty. The place actually is more library or warehouse than used book store, but you wouldn’t know from the look of it. Formerly a furniture store, the building is easy to miss on Vine Street, just a few blocks north of Galbraith. It’s open only three days a week (5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday), and once you walk in, you might wonder whether you’re in the right place.

The floor is bare concrete with chipping paint. Fluorescent bulbs hang from the exposed ceiling. The large windowed space inside the front entrance looks like a stockroom and is full of blue bins and boxes packed with books.

Barnes and Noble, it is not. But it just might be the best used bookstore in Ohio.

“Hold on just a minute,” Ken says to Christine and Sam. “We’ll have someone give you the tour.”

Creating a book lover's dream

The Friends Warehouse is run by the Friends of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. Discarded material from the library's main branch, as well as books, CDs, DVDs and records donated at branch locations, are all transported to the warehouse in Hartwell, where they are sorted and shelved and sold to the public. With prices set at $3 or less for most books and DVDs, it’s cheaper than almost any other used bookstore you can name.

The Friends Warehouse also acquires new books with a fast turnover rate, so if you can’t find what you’re looking for right away, odds are you’ll find it tomorrow. And the staff — primarily volunteer and part-time workers — are experts in their respective sections. Have a question about children’s books? Ask Lois Cody who stocks the section. Want a suggestion for a mystery novel? Ken has read them all.

Best of all, proceeds support the library and its programming, so you can think of your checkout total as a charitable donation to a good cause. In other words, it’s a book lover’s dream.

The floor manager, Alexia Loyanich, greets Christine and Sam and begins showing them around the shop. 

“Here’s where we sort through the incoming books,” she explains, pointing to the blue bins near the entrance. “We receive nearly 20,000 books a week from donations and library discards. Volunteers pull out the best books in good condition and we shelve them in different sections throughout the warehouse.”

Alexia shows Christina and Sam the AV section near the front where used CDs, DVDs, audiobooks and vinyl records are on sale for $2-3. They pass the checkout table and enter the back of the building into the fiction section with shelves for mystery, science fiction, short stories, essays, poetry, plays and classics.

“In fiction, generally, hardbacks and trade paperbacks are $3 and mass-market paperbacks are $1,” Alexia tells them. “But the price can vary. If you’re not sure of the price, just look on the inside cover.”

Just beyond fiction, the nonfiction books are separated into categories that cover biography and memoir, military and religious, cookbooks, gardening, film and television, history and much more. Most are available for $5 or less.

Four-year-old Sam is looking for the kids' books.

“Here they are,” says Alexia.

A dozen or more shelves in the back room of the building are devoted entirely to children and young adult books organized by grade level, with sub-sections for award-winning books, African American books, classics and series like Nancy Drew and The Boxcar Children. The entire back wall is filled end-to-end with kids' nonfiction books.

Christine asks, “Do you have Little House books? What about books with audio, too?” Sam begins pulling book after book off the shelves and plopping down on the floor to page through them.

“Mom, look! This one has dinosaurs!”

Linking Cincinnati's literary community

The Friends of the Public Library in Cincinnati was first formed in April 1957. The group functioned primarily as a social club where members sipped tea and admired rare and recently acquired books. Over time, membership grew more diverse and the focus shifted from boosting the library’s reputation to supporting public programming for everyone. A big success was the very first Friends of the Library book sale in June 1972, which soon became a much-anticipated annual tradition.

Anne Keller remembers those early sales on Fountain Square well. She is currently executive director of the Friends and oversees both the Hartwell warehouse and the annual book sale downtown.

“It started on Fountain Square with a couple of card tables and a cigar box,” she says of the beloved book sale that has grown so big that it now requires the year-round warehouse space to house all the donations and library discards.

Anne began her career as a reference librarian specializing in education and religious texts at the downtown library. She worked with the Friends group over the years to promote and grow the downtown sale. In 1998, when the Friends group was looking to create a staff position to run the warehouse (then on Dana Avenue), she was the perfect person for the job.

“I like to say we’ve grown the organization from a library staff member’s desk drawer to this facility,” says Anne.

From 1998 to now has been a period of huge growth and evolution. In 2001, the Friends moved from the Dana space to the current Hartwell location, and in 2005, the warehouse experimentally opened for retail sales. The experiment worked: In the past 10 years, the warehouse has steadily increased hours and staff members to accommodate the demand.

Today, Friends sales contribute roughly $255,000 to the library each year, providing vital support for its popular Summer Reading Program, as well as representation in Columbus to advocate on behalf of the Cincinnati Library.

But despite the great word-of-mouth advertising and a smattering of positive press over the years (including a shout-out in The New York Times), the Friends Warehouse remains unknown to many area residents. Anne is looking to change that.

“The number one challenge for the warehouse is location,” she says. “We’re always looking for a location of suitable size, attractiveness, accessibility, design and cost that will make us a destination. Right now we are a hidden gem. We want to become a destination.”

Christine and her son Sam are just the audience the Friends Warehouse hopes to reach.

“A friend of a friend told me about the bookstore,” says Christine. “I was at my son’s baseball game and we were talking about places to get books and she told me about this place.”

As a first grade teacher at Cincinnati Country Day, Christine looks forward to the January sale where she can pick up more books for her students.

But Sam might be even more impressed with the Friends Warehouse. At one point, overcome with excitement at the stack of books he found, Sam turns to his mom.

“There are super good books. Can we take them home and keep them forever and ever?”

Christine counts 12 books in his stack — a total cost of only $24.

“Yeah,” says Christine. “I think we can.”

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