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."
The Bookman's operating budget, about $100,000 per year, comes mostly from a handful of philanthropists whose praises Herman will sing for hours if you let him. The rest of it comes from what Herman calls "maximiz[ing] dollar flow. The way we do that is when I buy huge collections, I let dealers go through the books because the dealers have the expertise."
While he describes this process of selling more valuable books to dealers who resell them at higher prices in their bookshops, a tall blonde woman about 45 walks into the warehouse. Herman greets her and asks how he can help her. "I met you at the swap meet," she says. "You said you might be able to sell me some hardcovers." The woman, it turns out, is a swap-meeter who sells modern hardcover novels at swap-meets around town. Herman has plenty he'd like to sell her. "I usually ask for five dollars a box," he tells her.
"The rains have been killing me lately," she replies, "and I'm really short on cash. Can you do $4 a box?"
Herman turns on the old-world charm. "You seem like a nice lady, and pretty too. I can live with $4."
With that, he helps her load a dozen boxes onto the warehouse lift. When she's gone, he hustles down two flights of concrete stairs to the parking lot behind the building, where a silver van with the license plate BOOKMN 1 is parked. "I loaded a few boxes in here this morning," he says. "I've got to make a drop and a pickup."
The first stop is the Neil Good homeless drop-in center in East Village. On the way, Herman explains the deal he just struck with the swap-meet blonde. "Modern hardback novels -- the Danielle Steel and John Grisham books you bought for $25 or $30 at Barnes & Noble a couple of years ago -- I can't give them to the prisons or to the schools. So I box them up and people like that lady come and buy them by the box from me. Then they sell them for a buck apiece at the swap meet."
"I've got another guy who comes into the warehouse," he adds, "we call him the colored-book man. He comes and picks out books by the color to use for TV and movie sets and for interior designers to use in their rooms."
At the Neil Good center, Herman parks the car with windows down and doors unlocked, despite the fact that he had a van stolen once. "I always do that," he explains. "It shows respect for these people. You've got to give respect to get it."
Inside the center, Herman points to a four-by-four-foot bookshelf bearing a dozen paperbacks on its three shelves. "Need to restock," Herman says. None of the 30 homeless people sitting around the convenience-store-sized room are reading; most of them are giving their full attention to a 50-inch television along one wall. Herman, moving at a brisk pace, unloads half a dozen boxes from the back of the van, then drives over to the Alpha Project homeless shelter -- which is housed in a circus-type tent, 150 feet long, erected on a closed street just east of Petco Park -- to check the book-giveaway shelf inside the tent. Twenty or so books stand on the top shelf. After chatting with the staff a while, Herman steers the Bookman van to nearby City College, where he pulls down a driveway between the college and San Diego High School. Just inside a gate on the City College campus, a double set of wooden shelves 20 feet long stands empty. "Two days ago these shelves were completely full of books," he says. "I drop off a lot of books here for the students to pick up for free."
The Bookman's last stop is at the Delaney Book Service warehouse in the Morena area. There, after a minute's flirtation with the female employees, he picks up a dozen boxes of children's books.
He's back at the warehouse by 11:00 a.m., where his three volunteer crew members, Lenny Pearlman, Don Schulz, and Darrel Sims -- nicknamed the Elf, the Kid (because he's the youngest), and the Southern Illinois boy, respectively -- are busy sorting books. "This is my amazing crew," Herman says. "They are all volunteers. They work for the same kudos that I get: the hugs and the handshakes and the respect of people that we serve."