Event: Book Fair
Group: St. Albans City School PTO
Location: St. Albans, Vt.
Amount Raised: $5,000
Notable: Literacy events before the fair build community interest

Think of Vermont and three things might come immediately to mind: cows, skiing, and Ben & Jerry's ice cream. So how does a small town of modest means make $5,000 in profit from its book fair?

For the St. Albans City School PTO, it comes down to a team of diligent volunteers who use simple, effective ideas to generate the funds they need to improve both school and classroom libraries. They don't have one record-breaking secret. Instead they focus on building interest a little more each year, encouraging creative new ideas, and accepting what volunteers can offer without pushing too hard.

St. Albans is a town of 7,500 people located about 20 minutes from the Canadian border. The St. Albans parent group has been holding book fairs for years, but in the past decade, it has managed to increase its sales considerably. "Last year, we sold $14,000 in books," explains Lori King, PTO book fair chairwoman. "We live in a small city with only one bookstore, so we've found it very effective to target the entire county when we promote the fair."

How They Do It

The K-8 public school holds two book fairs a year, with the larger one in the fall. In 2005, it used its profits to garner books for classrooms and the library, plus some much-needed library furniture. This school draws 800 people to its weeklong book fair—one for each student in the school. King believes that the increased growth has much to do with implementing creative tactics and building communitywide support. Some of her methods include:

Providing books for adults as well as for children. St. Albans agreed to try a pilot program run by Scholastic and has been holding "custom" fairs for the last two years. In addition to the standard 10 cases set up for children, the fair includes several cases of adult books. "We offer more books because we realize that in our community, people look at this as a chance to shop at a traveling bookstore," King notes.

Offering teacher preview times. A huge part of St. Albans' success has been getting teacher buy-in. The PTO advertises non-peak times when teachers can look at the books without the distraction of supervising children. "The teachers use preview times to fill out a classroom wish list," King notes. "The children love to buy a book for the classroom. They are proud to present a book with their own nameplate in it. We had more than 1,000 books donated to classrooms last year through wish lists!"

Pairing the fair with other school events. The fall fair is usually set up to coincide with another big school event such as an open house. The PTO coordinates with the school schedule to draw families in when they will be visiting the building anyway, and everyone looks forward to checking out the books on those nights.

Using volunteers. St. Albans has about 65 people who help out. Rather than schedule helpers for two or three hours at a time, King asks for just one hour. "Most people feel comfortable donating a small block of time," she says, "plus I'd prefer to see four people come in as potential customers rather than one person sitting there for four hours." The PTO also encourages people to help out by offering at-home jobs such as telephone calling if they find it difficult to get to school.

Getting the kids involved. Why not make it a family affair? Older children love to work the cash register with a parent or help kids locate specific books. "We always have a waiting list of student volunteers," King says. "It's seen as a cool thing to do since we give them real responsibility." To involve everyone, the PTO works with the guidance department to identify students who may not be able to afford a book. In such cases, children are offered the chance to earn a book by volunteering. Kids also help set up and enjoy a pizza party after.

Publicizing the event. The PTO tells people about the book fairs through flyers home, letters seeking volunteers, newsletter articles, posters, and ads in the local paper. Teachers also have a chance to preview the books with their classrooms, making for simpler selection when the kids bring in money. On preview day, children submit their names for a gift certificate drawing.

Making it fun. Rather than strictly selling books, King uses the fairs as a way to promote literacy and positive school interactions. "We always have a character in costume provided by Scholastic, such as Clifford, to walk around and greet the children. We've had contests where we challenge kids to match photos of the teachers' pets with their teachers. Authors come in to read, and we show a movie with free popcorn and drinks."

Reaching a broader audience. In addition to attracting adults, the PTO targets preschoolers and teachers from other schools. "This year, our district had a half-day off for staff development during fair week, which brought in teachers from all over the county. The book fair stayed open during that time," King says.

Remembering other parents. At St. Albans, prekindergarten parents are invited. "We often forget that parents of preschoolers may be out of the loop in hearing about school events," King explains. "A lot of grandparents showed up, as well. It was a great introduction to the school for the young ones. "

Sharing the results. After the fair, the PTO always sends a results report to parents, teachers, and administrators. The list includes how many books were purchased for the library, the number of "wish list" books bought for classrooms, and the money that went to other PTO events.

"It's about people, not dollars," King notes. "We couldn't do what we do without the support of the entire community. Our focus is on improving literacy, and we demonstrate that each year with new books, particularly in classrooms where they are readily available."

Taking a Page From St. Albans City School PTO's Book Fair

  • Delegate. Teams work better than martyrs. By delegating, you involve more people and avoid burnout, too.
  • Ask for an hour of time rather than one large block. The St. Albans PTO has found that most people can't refuse.
  • Don't just request generic "help"; ask for assistance with a specific task. And use parents' skills, not just their time.
  • Routinely brainstorm for new ideas. Be sure to tap the fresh perspective of people new to the group.
  • Ask kids to volunteer and make the book fair an activity for the whole family.
  • Offer sneak previews to faculty, staff, and school administrators during off-peak times.
  • Make sure volunteers know where specific books are located. With a little preparation, you'll save time and avoid confusion.
  • Offer kids who can't afford a book the chance to earn one by volunteering.
  • Remember that volunteers are also shoppers!
  • Share results of the event with parents, teachers, and administrators.