San Diego This is the story of Irwin the Bookman who, with the help of Lenny the Elf and Don the Kid, gives away hundreds of thousands of books a year to schools, teachers, homeschoolers, prisons, homeless shelters, and old folks' homes around the county.
At 7:00 a.m. one recent morning Irwin Herman stoops over a pallet of books that arrived the day before. The pallet and ten others like it stand in a row bisecting the basketball-court-size second-floor Bookman warehouse in City Heights. Fifteen or 20 boxes crowd each pallet. Herman, a short, round man with thinning hair and a gray mustache, has been here for an hour already, rifling through each box, separating out the paperbacks. "All of those paperbacks," he explains in a soft, nasal voice, "go to the jails, prisons. They can't circulate hardcover books in the jail system. Inmates can get [hardcovers] in the classroom, but in their modules, where the books are most important, it's got to be paperbacks."
The reason, Herman says, is safety. With hardcovers, "Somebody could get angry with somebody else and throw a book at them. This is the mentality of the people who run the jails, and I don't interfere with that."
Giving books to a prison is how Irwin Herman became Herman the Bookman. "In late '89 or early '90 -- I didn't mark down the date -- a dear friend of mine was teaching at Descanso. He told me that the guys really had nothing to read. I gave him a handful of my own paperbacks. Later he invited me to the graduation when the guys got their GEDs. Every one of them came up to me, and I got a hug or a handshake from each of them."
That first book giveaway sparked something in Herman, and he began collecting books to give away, buying them at garage sales, library giveaways, and thrift stores as well as gleaning unwanted books from bookstores, particularly those along Adams Avenue in Normal Heights. He delivered them on his own to prisons. "I'm a high school dropout," he says, "and I relate well to these guys because I was there. I was never in prison or out on the street, but my dad died when I was a kid, so I became the man of the house really quick...."
As he sorts books in the cold warehouse, Herman tells a visitor about growing up in Chicago, working odd jobs, learning the appliance-repair trade, and running an appliance-repair business for 40 years. "I gave the business to my son Jeff, and with my wife Bunny I retired out here with no greater ambition than to buy a big jar of suntan lotion, take it to the beach, and sell it by the spritz while I sat in my beach chair."
But Herman found that such passivity isn't his nature. "I did sit by the pool for a while," he admits, "but I was used to getting up early in the morning and knocking out six to eight service calls in all kinds of weather. I'm a hustler. I've been hustling since I was a kid. You know, if you're honest and you treat people honestly..." Herman launches into a lecture on straight-dealing for the benefit of his much younger visitor. It's clear that Herman is more comfortable dispensing his wisdom and praising others than he is talking about himself. But when his visitor insists, Herman continues the story of his book giveaway, though he often reverts to praising others.
"It started in my garage," he recalls, "and I worked it up into six different garages. The man who owns this building -- Jack 'Amazing' Grace I called him -- he came into my life after he read an article about my need for more space. His owns a self-storage place, and he gave me some spaces to store books. But we were working out of six locations. Jack had this space available and he said, 'Why don't you come over here and use the space for a while?' Well, a while has turned into seven years. And, God bless him, he's never charged me a penny for rent. Never taken anything for the electric bill. And he comes back at me with a check for $3000 on top of that."
For many years -- Herman can't recall how many -- his book giveaway focused on the prisons. Herman, who says he educated himself through reading, was convinced that reading was integral to any chance of inmate rehabilitation. "Then my wife told me one day, 'You know, you're starting at the tail. Why don't you go the head.' And she was right. So I started looking for children's books. And I have a whole lot that are teacher-oriented too. My dream is to create not a library but a book giveaway in every classroom, so that the child at the end of the day can go over to their own bookcase and grab a couple of books and take them home to keep. If we can get the little ones reading, I don't have to bring them books later in jails."
The problem with "focusing on the little ones," as Herman puts it, is the books aren't as readily available as paperbacks for prisons. "We have to buy damn near 100 percent of our children's books. At least 95 percent. So I work the remainder market. How it works is, let's say Costco buys a hundred thousand of these Buzzing Bees," Herman plucks a brightly covered book off a nearby shelf. "Now, the cover price is about $7. Costco puts them out for, say, $4.98. Now, they sell a trillion of these, but they have 20,000 left, which they can return to the publisher. Now, the publisher doesn't want to mess with just small lots. Twenty thousand sounds like a lot, but to them that is a small lot. They then put them in what is known as the remainder market, and I get phone calls: 'Herman, I've got 10,000 Buzzing Bees. You can have them for a buck and a half apiece.' That means I have about a minute to say yes or no. I hate to say no, but saying yes means I have to tie up a lot of my capital, which is very hard to come buy. But I bought them. I have perhaps 30,000 remainder children's books on my floor right now."