Do book donations dropped in those big blue bins really go to charity?

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The big blue bins that have been installed in the parking lots of businesses across Sonoma County and around the Bay Area carry signs encouraging people to "get involved" by donating books.

A photo on the bins depicts an African-American couple reading to children, along with an email address for a national literacy organization.

The bins are not operated by the nonprofit, however, but by Thrift Recycling Management, a Seattle company that is fending off accusations its advertising misleads people into thinking they are donating books strictly for charity.

Many of the books dropped into the blue bins are sold online on sites like or recycled for profit. That's drawn the ire of library booster groups, who report their own efforts to collect books have been damaged by the bins.

"It's definitely going to hurt us," said Frank Morabito, president of Friends of the Santa Rosa Libraries.

The group successfully lobbied Safeway Inc. to remove the blue bins from grocery stores in Santa Rosa, and is working on other companies to do the same.

Thrift Management is fighting back, in part by launching a rebranding effort the company's president said Friday will make more clear its for-profit role.

"We made some mistakes and we're working on clarifying those, so that everyone is clear on what we're doing and the good we can bring to a community," said Jeff McMullin.

Thrift Management, which was founded in 2004, has 300 employees and distribution centers in 10 states, according to a company spokeswoman.

Books collected at the blue bins are examined at the distribution sites, including one in Benicia, and either re-sold online or recycled.

The company claims to have donated 6 million books, or about half the total number brought in, and diverted 115 million pounds of books from going into landfills.

It has attracted unwanted attention in Oregon, Virginia and Arizona because its blue bins carried signs stating, "Books for Charity." The company has since rebranded some of the bins with the slogan, "Read, Reuse, Recycle."

However, two bins in the parking lot of Prickett's Nursery in Santa Rosa this week still made it appear as if all of the donations were going to a charitable group.

"We were definitely under the impression that it was a nonprofit that was going to the library or the community," said a nursery employee who identified herself as Andrea.

A flyer provided to the nursery's owners before the bins were installed prominently features the logos for Reading Tree, a national literacy organization, and Reading Partners, an Oakland-based group with a similar mission.

The flyer states that "Reading Tree will collect all books in a timely manner" and deliver them to disadvantaged schools "in your community," or internationally to "aid in the global literacy crisis."

Nowhere on the document does it list Thrift Management or state that books will be sold for profit.

Matt Aguiar, Reading Partners' chief operating officer, on Friday called the flyers "misleading." He said nobody from Thrift Management asked for the nonprofit's permission before using its logo.

He said Reading Partners simply distributes books that Thrift Management donated to the agency.

"This presents us as if we're doing something together," he said.

Susan Houghton, a spokeswoman for Safeway, also suggested in an email this week that Thrift Management misled the Pleasanton-based grocer, leading the grocery chain to remove the bins from all of its Northern California locations.

"Our agreement stipulated that books were either to be donated or recycled. No books picked up on Safeway sites were to be sold," Houghton wrote.

Clare Thomas Maher, a spokeswoman for Thrift Management, acknowledged the company did not get permission from Reading Partners before using its logo on the flyer, which she said was not approved at the corporate level.

"I think that employee was excited by the opportunity and created it without thinking it through," she said.

Others view the company's actions differently.

"I really think it's a scam because they advertise that they give their books and money to charity, and they don't," said Joyce Saydah, a volunteer member of the Santa Rosa library booster group.

The booster group raises about $80,000 annually through two annual book fairs held at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds, Morabito said. Aside from the costs related to putting on the fairs, he said the group donates everything it raises to local libraries.

Books can be dropped off at the libraries. Volunteers also pick up donations for people who can't venture out.

Thrift Management has donated 2,500 books to the Santa Rosa library booster group, Aguiar said. But few of the books were in a condition to be sold, Morabito said.

"They weren't clean. Some of them were ripped. We had to discard them," he said.

Maher, however, said the library group began its campaign to kick the company out of Santa Rosa only after Thrift Management refused to give the group keys to the bins so that volunteers could pick out books to sell at fairs.

"At that point, they stopped accepting books from us and that's when they began efforts with Safeway," she said.

McMullin said Thrift Management has a good working relationship with many library groups, once the company is able to sit down with them and explain how the operation works.

Thrift Management is in the process of rebranding itself as a for-profit company with a "social mission," an effort McMullin compared to the corporate structures of Tom's of Maine or Ben & Jerry's.

He said the company also is rolling out new signs for the bins in an effort to be more "transparent."

"We want the library and we want the community to feel they have confidence in what we put on the bins," he said.

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