Goodwill in Brooklyn: On Donating Books to Unexpected Readers

November 20, 2012 | 13 3 min read

The man wanted the box I was carrying. I’d almost made it to the front door of a Goodwill in Brooklyn, and I had no idea how he’d guessed the box was full of books. There were no labels and the top flaps were closed. I was staggering a bit under its weight, but I could have been donating kitchen supplies, clothes, or old toys. Anything! He came toward me, a man probably in his 30s, ragged, living on the edge. His face opened into a smile and he closed the distance between us fast, holding out his arms.

“Books?” he asked. “Are those books?”

“Yes,” I said. Then I realized I was in the wrong place. A sign on the door of the Goodwill said we needed to use another entrance around the corner.

“Can I have them?” he asked. “I love books. I love reading.”

I looked at my husband. He was holding two boxes of books and staggering more than I. I looked at my children, who were looking up at me, waiting.

coverI am uncomfortable shedding books. The three boxes my husband and I were holding, plus three more in the trunk of the car, were the result of a careful purge executed after living abroad for a year. We’d been home only a few weeks and it was clear our bookcases were too crowded to hold all the books we’d bought in Germany. In the days I’d spent weeding the shelves, I’d very nearly given up my college edition of Ulysses before confessing on Twitter and being saved by a bookseller friend who suspected I was making a mistake while still addled by jetlag. But I did a few unthinkable things, such as keeping only my favorite McEwan novels. I told myself only collectors keep complete sets and I am fundamentally not a collector, especially in a Manhattan apartment.

“You like to read?” I asked weakly, stalling.

“Yeah!” he said.

His enthusiasm seemed genuine, but given his general condition, I couldn’t convince myself he wasn’t going to go around the corner and sell the books on the sidewalk. Did I want the sale of the books to benefit Goodwill more than him? That didn’t seem right. But I was committed to the idea that the books would sit, dry and cared for, until someone came along and chose them. My husband’s grandmother, an amazing reader, bought all her books at the Goodwill in Norfolk, Va., I guess I was picturing someone like her.

“Mom?” my nine-year-old daughter said. She looked worried and a bit confused. She loves books, too, and this is what she was taking in: My reluctance to give a box of books to someone who had just told us he loved to read. I didn’t know what to do.

“You really want them?” I said. “You want to read them?”


I gave him the box and smiled at my daughter, but I was aware of making a choice that had more to do with how I wanted to teach her to treat people than how I actually wanted to treat the books I was holding. And then, unable to shake the feeling that I was abandoning some part of myself to an uncertain fate, I followed him and my daughter followed me. My husband and son headed to the correct Goodwill entrance; the man with my books crossed the street, put the box down, and opened it. He sorted through the books, picked up a few for closer inspection, and ultimately put several in a bag he was wearing over his shoulder. I wanted to know which books he was taking, books I’d lived with for nearly 20 years, but his back was to me and I couldn’t see.

“What’s he doing?” my daughter asked. We were standing behind a parked car across the street.

“Well, I think he’s picking out the ones he wants,” I said.

“He’s not taking them all?” she asked.

“Maybe not. The box is heavy.”

The man closed the box, picked it up, and started walking again. Half-a-block along, and now directly across the street from the Goodwill entrance my husband had gone to, he appeared to run into a friend who was unloading a truck. They talked for a minute, then he put the box down and his friend went through the books, also taking a few for himself. The exchange seemed spontaneous and magnanimous.

I hugged my daughter.

My husband passed by with the last two boxes. “How’s it going?” he asked.

“He’s sharing some of the books with a friend!” I announced.

While my husband was in the Goodwill, the man crossed the street, put the box on the sidewalk in front of the correct entrance, and walked away.

In the car on the way home, my husband said that the workers inside the Goodwill had been truly grumpy about receiving five boxes of books. He’d found it disheartening, and on top of it all, we’d gotten a parking ticket, the fact that we were making a donation not impressive enough to save us.

I turned around and looked at my tired children. “Isn’t it so lucky we bumped into a reader on the street?”

“Do you really think he was?” my daughter asked.

“I do,” I said. And I do.

Image Credit: Flickr/Beaufort’s TheDigitel

’s first novel, The Report, was published by Graywolf Press in the US and Portobello Books in the UK. It was a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and the Indie Booksellers Choice Award, as well as a Barnes & Noble “Discover” pick and a Best Reads 2012 selection of the TV Book Club in the UK. A collection of stories, This Close, is forthcoming from Graywolf in March. She is a contributing writer for The Morning News and lives in New York City with her family. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter @JessicaFKane.


  1. “I told myself only collectors keep complete sets and I am fundamentally not a collector, especially in a Manhattan apartment.”

    Now I remember why I’ve stayed in Chicago (along with the pizza)– space for my library.

  2. Thanks so much for this piece. Books are so important to me and when friends are in any sort of trouble I suggest something they might read. It made me so happy that you gave him the books and even happier that he really is a reader.

    Thank again!

  3. So is that what happens to all the good books that are going to Goodwill? Because I’ve only found one book worth owning in their stores around here, and I already owned it.

    Great story though. Thanks for sharing.

  4. As a Goodwill patron for all my bibliomaniacal needs, I wouldn’t have appeared much different than that man, “ragged, living on the edge” and would’ve been out-right enthusiastic over the opportunity to rummage through anther reader’s forfeitures and more to make their acquaintance but in recent years I’ve run up against a mounting legion of illiterate book resalers who, like goons gripping bar-code scanners grapple each book’s binding with as little care and concern as the internet resale price indicates on the little electronic screen. Trinkets like Franzen’s The Corrections, Morrison’s Paradise, McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, Roy’s The God of Small Things, to name too few go ignored for the month-long popular genre titles. But that won’t stop them from snagging up a Murakami or Bolano or Pynchon title without any inkling of the fictional treasure they’ve discovered. On some of my lustier days, I wrestle poetry titles from these book golems or slip a book or two from their cart while they’re feverishly scanning the back of each dust-jacket in hope of a ten-fold return or at least a couple extra dollars. So, for your sake and for my composure, I will assume your stranger-in-waiting was authentic and in fact loved reading too.

  5. Derek, thanks for your comment. I appreciate the dimension you’ve added to the scene, even as it worries me. Oh dear. Once we decide to give up books, I guess all we can do is hope for the best. I wish you luck in all your future book browsing.

  6. Thanks Jessica. I used to have a tall bookcase standing beside my front door filled with duplicate titles or books I reconciled myself to part with. Most guests knew those were for the taking but I would always urge newcomers to snag one for good measure. That, and I’d lug large boxes to school every couple of months and unload them in seminar courses for my hovering peers to swoop down and seize a novel or two. That frenzy was always a fun to watch.

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