To the uninitiated, The Bookmark Bookstore in the heart of Old Oakland might look like any other used bookstore in the Town. Inside, bibliophiles peruse the aisles hoping to find their next read. Coffee-table art books, works of fiction, cookbooks, hobby books, biographies, and political writings adorn the tables and shelves. Small collections of jigsaw puzzles, vinyl records, and CDs complement the literary offerings. 

What many may not know is that the bookstore started nearly 30 years ago as the flagship store of Friends of the Oakland Public Library.

It was in 1966 when local library supporters first banded together to form Friends of OPL. In its early years, the group hosted book sales to raise funds for the Main Library downtown, and, over the decades, its support was extended to library branches all over Oakland. In 1992, after years of wandering the city and hosting sales, the Friends decided to open a permanent bookstore to better serve its efforts. 

Copy of an old newsletter from the Friends of the Oakland Public Library after the opening of the Bookmark Bookstore in 1992. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

The Bookmark Bookstore first opened its doors at 815 Washington St., next to Ratto’s Deli and Market, before moving to its current location at 721 Washington Street in 1995. 

Today, the store is run almost entirely by volunteers; the only employees are its two part-time co-managers, Laura Guzman and Sven-Eric Geddes. The used books they sell are priced at 40 to 50% below most other used bookstores—many, if not most, are priced somewhere between $3 and $6. It’s a business model that’s paid dividends for Oakland Public Library: Since opening in Old Oakland, the bookstore has generated $3 million in book sales, according to the organization. In the 2019-2020 fiscal year alone, Friends of OPL donated over $200,000 in grants to the Oakland Public Library for programming across all of its branches. 

Volunteers tend to stay with Friends of OPL for a long time. But few as long as Winifred Walters, a volunteer since 1995 who also served on the organization’s board until she retired in late 2021

Walters remembers how, in the days before the internet, people interested in volunteering would find information through the newspaper. “A volunteer I used to share a Saturday shift with early on used to tell people that that’s where she learned about the store,” Walters said. “A volunteer promotion ran in the Oakland Tribune.” 

The bookstore lost some of its volunteers during the COVID closures and has been unable to re-open seven days a week. The store is currently open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is looking for additional volunteers

That’s how Guzman, one of the new co-managers, got her start. “I discovered the bookshop as a volunteer, passionate about libraries, and it’s just such a best-kept secret,” Guzman said. “I volunteered here on Saturdays for a few months, and the store was in a moment of transition. It was lucky timing.” The previous bookstore manager, Phyllis Couillard, who also began as a volunteer in 2009, left her position over the summer. 

Clipping from the Oakland Tribune from Thursday, March 7, 1996 Credit:

The volunteers at the bookstore come from all walks of life, from retirees to college students to people who are in-between jobs. Being a volunteer means sometimes finding hidden treasures or having unsuspected meetings. Walters recalled finding one rare book that the bookstore sold for $1,700. And in the past, donations have come from famous people, like former Oakland mayor and California Gov. Jerry Brown. 

“He would donate books every once in a while, and a lot of books were inscribed ‘to Jerry Brown.’ It was very low-key,” Walters said. “Somebody would say, ‘Jerry Brown brought some books over.’ It was really great.”

Other donations come from estates, like when the family of famed English journalist Jessica Mitford donated her books. Mitford is best known for authoring The American Way of Death, an exposé of the funeral-home industry in the United States. 

People interested in supporting Friends of the Oakland Public Library and The Bookmark Bookstore can volunteer, shop online or in person, donate books, or become members

While the bookstore is celebrating its 30th anniversary, book lovers can take advantage of the store’s semi-annual sale from Thursday, Oct. 20, through Sunday, Oct. 23. 

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.