Right about this time every year, anonymously placed stacks of books start showing up on the front porch of Ann Stevens’ home in Bonita.
It’s also around now that she’s regularly seen around town hand-collecting bags and boxes of books from local residents, a hobby that led her sons to jokingly call Stevens “the bag lady.”
Stevens, 68, is the founder and organizer of the Bonita Optimist Club’s semiannual used book sale. The next one takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 3 and 4 at the Bonita Museum, where as many as 13,000 books will be sold with all proceeds benefiting the club’s charitable programs for children.
Stevens can’t calculate the hours she dedicates to the book sales, but she admits it’s quite a few, because she doesn’t delegate well. She also says the sales could not happen without the countless volunteer hours put in by her book sale team of Jim Alkire, Al Zimmer, Ric Rice, Christina Fruechte and Jean Vaccaro.
Collecting, scanning, storing and preparing the books for sale is a year-round preoccupation that can be exhausting. But Stevens said it’s all worth it when customers come up to her at the sales and ask for her advice on a good book or author.
“I love getting people connected with books. It’s so fun,” she said.
The feeling is mutual.
Eastlake resident Esther Pearson is a member of the book sale fan club, a group of about 300 local residents who show up at every sale and often donate back what they’ve read.
Pearson said the Bonita Optimist Club book sale is the best of its kind in the region because of the quality of the books it sells and its well-categorized organization.
“Ann is energetic, family-focused and very interested in people and books. She works extremely hard and she’s always fun,” Pearson said. “This is an important cause for the community. It draws people together and provides a lot of money for important children’s causes.”
Stevens was raised in Manhattan Beach and moved to the county in 1969 to attend San Diego State University, where she studied speech communication and English.
After earning a teaching credential and master’s degree, she went to work for the Sweetwater Union High School District, where she spent more than 36 years, working as a teacher, counselor and assistant principal before retiring in 2007.
Meanwhile, she and her husband of 45 years, Del, a financial planner, raised two sons, Mark, a project engineer in San Diego, and Eric, who owns a security barrier company in Salt Lake City.
During the many years she worked with high school-age children, Stevens said one of the biggest problems teens struggled with was low self-esteem.
“They need to recognize they have value and they can make goals,” she said. “So many don’t feel the future is theirs to make.”
After she retired, Stevens began looking for ways to volunteer. First she began helping out at the Chula Vista library, which later led to a part-time job. Then a friend recruited her to join the Bonita Optimist Club.
Founded 45 years ago, the 90-member organization’s motto is “Bringing out the best in kids,” which deeply resonated with Stevens.
Among its many outreach efforts are a recognition program for sixth-graders; small grants for children’s programs; support of children’s libraries; help with youth sports and music programs; a college scholarship program; and assistance for children at New Alternatives, a residential center for children in the foster-care system.
The club’s biggest annual fundraiser is a golf tournament held each June. For many years it also held an annual craft sale. In 2009, Stevens suggested adding a table of used books at the craft sale to make some extra money.
That first year, she collected and sold nearly 300 books. The sale was considered such a success, that eventually it supplanted the craft sale and expanded to twice a year. These days, each sale offers 12,000 to 13,000 books, and they collectively raise from $6,000 to $7,000 a year.
Stevens said the secret to the sales’ success is organization. She and her team collect books year-round and store them in the basement of the county-owned Provence House on Sweetwater Road.
The books come from a number of sources. Some come from retiring teachers cleaning out their classrooms and some from teachers who have received grants for new books. Some are from couples who are downsizing. The Jr. Optimist Club occasionally hosts book drives for the sale, and one club member visits estate sales and asks for donations of any unsold books.
Stevens is so strongly associated with the sale that as soon as word gets out in the community that a sale is approaching, neighbors start stacking books on her porch.
Every book is checked for water or page damage. Then, its ISBN number is scanned into a database created by Ric Rice, which allows the team to categorize each title by genre and author.
Any books that don’t meet the quality standard or are over-represented in the inventory are donated to library book shops or Goodwill.
After the books are brought into the museum for sale, fan club members get an email for a pre-show preview. Fans can also pre-order titles in the database. The books are priced from 25 cents for children’s books to $1 for paperbacks and $1.50 for hardbound books.
Virginia Synadinos of Eastlake has been coming to the book sales for five years. She’s a fan of memoirs and military history books and said she’s always amazed at the diversity of books she finds at the sales.
“So many library book sales are the same old novels they print millions of. I just find the most fabulous interesting books at Ann’s sales,” Synadinos said. “They have everything so well laid out I can go right to the table I want and Ann is always so charming and helpful.”
Stevens said she sees the book sales as a win-win for both the Bonita Optimist Club’s charitable programs and for the community at large.
“It’s a good fundraiser and I like that it’s a community-centered event,” she said. “We have a wonderful relationship with the museum’s directors and I like that it takes place right in the heart of town.”
For information on the Bonita Optimist Club and its book sales, visit bonitaoptimist.org.
For information about other clubs in San Diego, visit calso41.us