Bibliophiles in the basement

HIDDEN GEM—The Book Cellar in the basement of the Agoura Hills Library offers a ton of used selections. IAN BRADLEY/Acorn Newspapers

HIDDEN GEM—The Book Cellar in the basement of the Agoura Hills Library offers a ton of used selections. IAN BRADLEY/Acorn Newspapers

In the era of online shopping and corporate retail, small businesses are becoming an increasing rarity. Independent bookstores, especially, find it hard to compete, which makes Agoura Hills’ thriving Book Cellar even more impressive.

A treasure trove of used books for 50 cents to $2, the Book Cellar is in the basement of the Agoura Hills Library and is only open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

By no means a secret, its existence could nevertheless be a surprise to some locals.

Tom Allen, vice president of Friends of the Agoura Hills Library, the organization that oversees the Book Cellar, said the shop has a great reputation among the people who know about it.

“We are not well known. We have the same customers over and over again, and we’ll get an occasional one that’s a first-timer,” Allen said. “We were named the No. 1 used bookstore of Los Angeles and Ventura by L.A. Weekly two years in a row.”

The Book Cellar is in the Agoura Hills Civic Center at Ladyface Court. Most of the week the parking lot and the underground garage are used by city employees, but when City Hall closes Saturdays, Book Cellar volunteers open the store to the public.

Allen has volunteered with the Cellar for 10 years and is part of a team of 25 volunteers who keep it running. They take shifts selling books on Saturdays and spend weekdays stocking shelves and organizing donations.

Allen said what sets the Cellar apart from other used book vendors is that volunteers don’t just wait for donations to come in. If someone contacts them with a sizable donation, they will go out, load the books into their cars and bring them back. In some cases, they even store the unsorted donations at their homes until the Cellar has room for them.

“One crew of volunteers just came in. They picked up 6,000 books from a donor. We’ve been to them before, and we’ve got to go back. This is the third Saturday, and we’ve probably got two or three more (trips),” Allen said. “Because we’ll go out and pick them up, even the library in San Fernando Valley will tell people who have large donations to call us.”

If the Cellar has multiple copies of a book, volunteers will donate them to libraries that are being established in Costa Rica and Israel, to juvenile detention centers or to Veterans Affairs hospitals.

Volunteer Diane Haupt doesn’t have an official title; she says she’s the “at large volunteer” because she does whatever’s required to keep the store running. At least four days a week she sorts through donations, dividing books by type—hardcover and paperback, science fiction, classic, children’s books—to restock the shelves.

Haupt has been involved with the Book Cellar since it opened in 2002. Before Agoura Hills built its City Hall and library in 2001, Haupt was volunteering at the city’s library and selling books at the Las Virgenes Library.

“When Agoura Hills opened the (new) library they gave me an area downstairs and said I could put my books there,” Haupt said. “They put up shelves and did all this really cool stuff, and I thought it looked like a store. We talked to the city and they said we could have the space to do the store.”

Haupt said the Book Cellar has a personal touch that other stores don’t, which helps it be a repeat destination for local bibliophiles. Visitors are greeted with cookies and music, and there are seats where customers can dive into a book before they buy it.

Haupt said she’s a career volunteer. She’s been volunteering with local libraries since 1985 for the simple reason that she loves to read.

“I had very small children in the 1970s, so I sometimes would escape to the library and sit for 15 minutes in quiet, so they got to know me,” Haupt said.

She said that being a book lover doesn’t interfere with her work with the Cellar. If she finds a book she likes, she sets it aside to read later. She said that as time has passed, she’s started setting aside fewer books and bringing more in from her personal library.

“Let’s say you work at a chocolate factory and you really love chocolate and you’re eating it like crazy,” Haupt said. “After a while you’d notice that it’s just chocolate and you wouldn’t be eating it so much. Our volunteers like getting books to the right people. It’s a nice job, it’s fun.”