The rise of electronic media and online shopping has dealt a blow to both print media and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but millennial entrepreneur David Chung and his sister, Annie, are swimming against that tide. The Chungs recently opened a retail bookstore, 50/50 Books, in an industrial warehouse space near Colorado and I-70.
Open on the weekends since February, 50/50 Books’ community shop operates on a unique model: customers pay what they can for high quality used books. Proceeds from sales and donations are split evenly between supporting the nonprofit bookstore’s operating costs and giving back to other community organizations.
For example, 50/50 recently partnered with We Don’t Waste, an organization that reclaims food waste from caterers and restaurants and redistributes it. Proceeds from 50/50 sales donated to We Don’t Waste in April generated 9,131 meals for needy people in the community, said Annie Chung.
The mission of 50/50 Books is three-fold: loving the community, reducing book waste and promoting literacy. In a reversal of traditional retail trajectories, the brick-and-mortar nonprofit grew from an online business, DreamBooks, owned by David Chung
David Chung has been in the book business for a decade, selling used books online through marketplaces like Amazon and eBay through his company, DreamBooks. Chung started DreamBooks in his parents’ basement, with little more than a computer, printer and small stack of used books. The company is now one of the top 50 online book sellers in the country. It processes over 5 million pounds of books a year. (Yes, you read that right—books are measured by the pound, not volumes, in the used book industry!)
But Chung says DreamBooks only ends up selling about 10 percent, or 500,000 pounds, of that total amount. His proprietary algorithm determines which books are worth selling online. The rest are either sent back to thrift organizations like Goodwill for resale, or they’re recycled— which is inefficient. “When you recycle a book, it’s not quite as good as recycling office paper or cardboard. It takes more energy,” said Chung “And after you recycle a book, it turns into a lower grade product. A book cannot be re-turned into a book.”
A visit to the DreamBooks warehouse can be an anguishing experience for a bibliophile. Large trucks bring cardboard bins filled with used books. DreamBooks buys stock from Goodwill, Salvation Army and other sources. Employees use a long-handled garden fork to sort through the books as they pour onto a conveyor belt.
Books that are too old, in poor condition, and even some that are too heavy to be worth shipping long distances flow through to a second bin, destined for shredding. Browsing through a large tote of such rejects, it’s impossible not to find old favorites and feel a sense of dismay, knowing that they will soon be destroyed.
“We recycle 4.5 million pounds of books a year,” explained Chung, “But there are literally kids across the highway, at Adams-14 High School, that can’t afford the book that they need to read for their classroom. It kind of baffles me that there’s such a discrepancy.” Chung saw a way to fill that gap.
The Beginnings of 50/50
While it doesn’t make financial sense for DreamBooks to save old books, the Chungs felt a longing to do better. “The reality is, once you recycle a book from the ‘50s or early 1900s, there’s no way you can replicate that again,” said David “I thought it would be so important to create an area where people can adopt those older books.” The safest place for a book, he says, is in a personal library.
David Chung began a Kickstarter campaign in December 2017 to fund his vision of a community nonprofit bookstore and has leveraged his for-profit company to support it. DreamBooks provides warehouse and retail space at low or no cost and also sells used books to 50/50 at wholesale prices. 50/50 also receives donations from personal libraries. 50/50 sells some of these books online and others through the brick and mortar store, which is lined with used books, both old and current.
“We’re a bookstore with a heart for the community,” said Annie Chung. “Every person that walks through the door, we want to treat them with dignity and compassion.” The Chungs have intentionally made the retail store a warm, welcoming place with interesting and appealing titles that are in good condition. It feels like an offshoot of the Tattered Cover, not a thrift store. “You don’t know where people are coming from, what their backgrounds are. A lot of times people don’t have access to books, and we don’t want it to feel like a handout,” said Annie Chung.
50/50 has provided large stores of books to teacher groups, nonprofits like Reach Out and Read and directly to schools. But the clean, well-lit space also invites individuals to come in and shop. Find a treasure, pay what you can, and know that you’re reducing waste, preserving old books, and giving back to the community. 50/50 is located at 4425 Grape Street, across from Green Solution. Hours are Sat.-Sun. 10am-4pm.