Arts & Culture

Cameo: Bonnie Hoppa

We talk to the new executive director of The Book Thing.

How did you first discover The Book Thing (TBT)?
I have a friend, who is also a book dragon, and was a long-term volunteer here. They said, “There’s this place where the books are free!” But I’m a disabled veteran, so I’m used to people advertising as things for free, but there’s always a catch. About a year ago, I came here, and I was shocked. All of the books really are free!

How did you become the executive director?
Founder Russell Wattenberg had major medical issues and he went into the hospital. I had been volunteering at TBT for over a year at that point, and the board of directors asked me in June to be the executive director, which is so exciting! But suddenly I’m in charge of a 20-year-old nonprofit, and since I’ve been here as a volunteer for a while, there’s a number of things that I observed that I’ve started to shift, change, and update to make this a bit smoother of an operation.

One of the changes that you’ve implemented is limiting book donations to certain genres. What was the reasoning behind that?
Right now, we have approximately half a million books in our backlog—there’s an entire separate warehouse across the street that holds our books. After a conversation with other volunteers, we took stock of what books we had versus what moves off of the shelves, and we decided to limit the books coming in to nine genres, including kids’ books and romance. It’s not the most popular decision, but we needed to do it so that we could start making progress because books sitting in storage for years is not what we’re here to do. It’s not good for the books, it’s not good for our budget, and it’s not accomplishing our mission.

What are some of your long-term goals for TBT?
I want to focus on stocking book categories that we need more of. Books in our people of color, Native American, Asian American, and LGBTQ sections are perpetually understocked because we rely heavily on what people donate. We have a huge demand for those types of books, and we can’t keep them on the shelves—so how do we fix that? I’m looking into a way to dedicate part of our budget toward acquiring books in those categories, even if that means purchasing them from discount retailers or partnering with other organizations to help add more diverse books to our shelves. This is a demonstrated need in our community, and we’re working on filling it.

Why do you think TBT continues to be such a popular community space?
It’s something that hits the ‘I can help’ in all of us. This is available to everybody. We’ll get 500-plus visitors every weekend, and every time someone leaves excited because of something they found here. Some people say one person can’t change the world, but one person is a world in and of themselves, and you never know when one experience or one book will change someone’s world. That kind of radiates out of this place. Whether it’s helping someone save thousands of dollars on their textbooks or a child who hasn’t been able to afford the book that their classmates are reading, all of those moments matter.