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DU’s ‘best kept secret’ has sold new, used and rare books for nearly 30 years

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Janette Ballard

5 questions for Barbara Anderson, lead volunteer of the Book Stack’s team of dedicated booklovers.

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A woman carrying a stack of books.

One of the best kept secrets on campus seems to be, remarkably, the Book Stack. Located in the heart of campus in the iconic Mary Reed building, “the Stack” houses more than 35,000 new, used and rare books for sale. Yet, somehow, says Barbara Anderson, the lead volunteer for the bookstore, “We seem to be the biggest unknown on campus. Students will wander in amazed to discover us.” 

Yet not all who wander are lost. The Stack has a faithful following of neighbors, students, faculty and bookstore volunteers who have found community amongst the shelves. Anderson says that, for many, the Book Stack is “our home away from home.”

It all began in 1932 when Mary Reed Hall was built as the new University of Denver library. Students called it “the Stack.” When the Penrose Library was built in 1972, the Stack transitioned into a repository for donated new and used books sold in fundraisers by the Women’s Library Association (now the University Library Association.) In 1997, the book room was transformed into a store. Today, customers can peruse more than 90 subjects, including history, psychology, travel, foreign language titles, crafts and fiction. All proceeds benefit the DU Libraries.

“We sell books so we can buy more,” says Anderson. “I like to think that donors give us books they no longer need so other people can use and love them, and the money raised can help buy more books for the library. We are the perfect recycling effort.”

Anderson has volunteered at the Book Stack since 2002. She came to Denver in 2001 with her husband, who was hired as the chair of DU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. With a history of working in school libraries and other nonprofits, Anderson found her niche at the Stack. 

Anderson shares more history and delightful stories in this Q&A with the DU Newsroom.

How has the Book Stack changed over the past 20 years? 

When I started working at the Book Stack, there was only the slightest sign of any true organization.  Over the past two decades, we have worked hard to make the Book Stack more customer friendly by putting most of the sections in order, and alphabetized. We were open Tuesday–Thursday and Saturday. Since we reopened after the pandemic, we are no longer able to open on Saturday, which had often been our busiest day. We had a loyal coterie of customers who shopped every Saturday, some from the neighborhood, some serious bibliophiles, some with children—who loved coming in and getting the cookies, which were always available at the front desk. 

Who are the volunteers that run the store?

Sandee Walling, the beloved cashier who worked Saturdays and Wednesdays, represented a group of volunteers who had deep connections to the University. Volunteers have included retired DU librarians, alumni and faculty—our longest working volunteer, Bernie Spilka, a retired psychology professor,  worked into his 90s. Bernie was the great hold-out in terms of tighter organization in the Stack. He had worked at a used bookstore in New York in the early 1950s, where the philosophy had been to keep everything in chaotic order because it would encourage customers to buy more books as they looked through the randomly shelved books. Since he managed multiple sections—social sciences, physical sciences, math, religion, philosophy—customers would go to him for help and often would be treated to one of his wonderful stories. We may now have more organization in the areas he formerly cared for, but we all miss his knowledge, his endless stories and his dedication. 

Many of the most faithful workers either have had to leave us because of health issues or have died. The average age of volunteers once was probably 80. One of our old-timers would wander in, find a chair, grab a book to look at and promptly fall asleep until someone would ask for help. She, too, added to the atmosphere of the store—although she had a memorable driving mishap, hitting three cars in the parking lot as she tried to back out of the chancellor’s spot she had accidentally taken.

Do you have other amusing tales? 

Our customers have always been an interesting source. We never know who will want what kind of book. I recall two elderly customers, at least in their 80s, who were looking for the expected craft books and then wondered if we had any books about motorcycles because they were thinking about getting one. And what was the age of the person who bought all “Fifty Shades of Gray” books with glee? At least 85!

What’s one of the most interesting books you’ve come across? 

I remember a book by Eleanor Roosevelt, which she had signed and given to someone. We knew it would have some value because of the autograph and personal message, but the real treasure was discovering a handwritten thank you note tucked into the book thanking the recipient for the lovely dinner Mrs. Roosevelt and the recipient had shared together on Mrs. Roosevelt’s most recent Denver visit. 

How do you get your books? 

Most of our books come from private donations, often from professors or administrators clearing out their offices when they retire, but many are donated by alumni or families of deceased alumni. We are so intrigued by the variety of books in any given donation. We used to get annual donations of hard back mystery novels from someone who was a heavy smoker. We had to deodorize those books before we could put them on the shelves, but it was such a wonder to get perhaps 100 hard back mystery books all printed in the previous year, since most readers tended to buy paperbacks to assuage their reading habit.   

The Book Stack is located on the first floor (room 107B) of the Mary Reed Building and is open Tuesday–Thursday, 9 a.m.–1 p.m.

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