Sustaining Portland’s culture of reading and reuse

Multnomah Country and the Portland bibliosphere uphold local book culture

According to Bryn Johns-Hunter, retail operations manager for Friends of Multnomah County Library, there is no such thing as having too many books. I agree, and I know I am not alone. In fact, Portlanders love books so much, we have cultivated our very own self-sustaining bibliosphere.

FMCL is “a member supported nonprofit that raises money and advocates for the Multnomah County Library and its programs and services,” according to their mission statement. The organization’s annual Fall Used Book Sale, Oct. 26–29 at Lloyd Center DoubleTree Exhibit Hall, will feature an estimated 40,000 donated books for sale.

FMCL Executive Director Jackie Starr expects the event to gross around $70,000, which after expenses, will fund library programs and events such as the Adult Summer Reading Program, National Library Workers’ Day, and Pageturners book discussion groups.

The bibliosphere circle of life is complete when readers leave the Fall Used Book Sale with books purchased at garage sale prices, which they might one day pass on to someone else. And the best thing about this endless redistribution is that the more a book moves around, the more it tends to be read.

Other Portlanders feel similarly; we borrow a lot of books. Multnomah County Library racked up the nation’s second-highest circulation—18.5 million items in 2017–18—for city populations under one million, according to a report from the Public Library Association. The library serves almost one-fifth of Oregonians.

Although its monetary contribution is modest compared to the library’s 80 million dollar annual budget, FMCL has a disproportionately positive effect on the community. It not only funds special library programs and helps get used books to readers, but also sustains a community of bookish members and volunteers who work on the Fall and Spring Used Book Sales.

The event depends heavily on volunteers, Starr said. Up to 200 are needed, including those who can carry heavy cartons of books. Volunteering benefits not just FMCL and the library, but the volunteers themselves. Many volunteers are retirees who want to stay active and engaged with the community. They also enjoy the warm, glowy feeling of helping to sustain one of the most important elements of our culture.

In my heart of hearts I am loyal to our most venerable technology: a tangible object of beauty, smelling quaintly of the past, connecting me silently—but not wordlessly—to my fellow human beings.

Books entertain and enlighten us. We read to transcend the shortness of our lives and the paradox of loneliness in a crowded world. Despite our advancements, the book remains our most sophisticated way of preserving ideas. But a book sitting around unread might as well be a block of wood.

In our accelerating civilization, we worry about our continued existence, peering into the past and into the future for answers. The FMCL—and friends of libraries everywhere—have the right idea. “Books are to help us with our struggles,” Starr said. I second this, and I agree; Books can save us.

The Fall Used Book Sale will be held at Lloyd Center DoubleTree Hotel Exhibit Hall, 1000 NE Multnomah St., Portland, Ore. 97232. Readers interested in attending or volunteering can find more information at