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Parents Upset With Scholastic Book Fairs

Some local parents are trying to run Clifford the Big Red Dog out of town.

Actually it's Clifford's corporate parent, Scholastic Inc., that has gotten the parents' goat. They say Scholastic's near-monopoly on book fairs, mainstays of school fundraising, has led to declining book quality and too much display space for toys and knickknacks, including charm bracelets, posters of action figures and stickers.

"We're tired of being taken advantage of and held hostage," said Jody Lang, a member of the book-fair committee at Hulstrom Options School, a public magnet school in Northglenn.

"If I'm going to give my kids money to buy books, I want them to come home with something of quality. I don't really want Pokémon or Justice League or any of the other commercial things that are out there."

Plastic see-through skulls, computer games and glitter pencils are also sold at the fairs.

Lang called schools around the metro area and found widespread dissatisfaction with the book-fair status-quo.

"Pretty much across the board they are unhappy with Scholastic," she said.

But there are few alternatives. "The only serious player in the market is Scholastic," said Jody Gehrig, director of libraries for Denver Public Schools. "Not everyone likes Scholastic, and I understand why. Scholastic has bought out everyone."

Teachers even send Scholastic shopping lists home with kids, creating a school-to-home marketing mechanism.

The New York company is a publisher and also the world's largest distributor of kids' books. It bought a local competitor, Tall Tales Book Fairs, in January.

Former Tall Tales co-owner Theresa Wellbrock said she and her husband sold to focus on rental properties and a new grandchild.

"I think they're really sincere in wanting to carry forward the same kind of quality we offered," she said. "But it is big corporate. There is a difference between big corporate and mom-and-pop operations that can easily personalize each fair for the school running it."

Scholastic spokeswoman Judy Corman denied her company forces schools to peddle trinkets.

"That's not our game," she said. "Our 83-year-old mission is to assure that every child, any way that we can, has access to books, falls in love with books, learns to read and loves to read for their whole life."

But the Hulstrom committee isn't convinced. Last year's Scholastic fair was "heavy on the merchandise, light on the books," said Jackie Steeno, another mom there. "For kids like my kids who read everything in sight, there wasn't really much there for them."

For this year's fair, to be held Thanksgiving week, the committee found only one local store willing to do all the necessary driving and accounting: Bo Peep Books in Lakewood, owned by former school librarian Shirley Sternola.

Sternola has done book fairs for 13 years, but schools make less money with her since Scholastic eats losses caused by error or theft and Bo Peep can't, she said.

Errors are common when parent volunteers tend the cash box. "It's awfully easy, on a calculator, to put in $6.95 when you meant to put in $16.95," Sternola said.

"If I deliver $10,000 worth of books to a school and I get back $6,000 worth, then I assume they sold $4,000 worth and bill them accordingly."

Parents at Graland Country Day School recruited Tattered Cover, whose Cherry Creek store is a few blocks away, for this year's fair, which will be at the school next week.

"We as a community want to support a local independent bookstore," parent Laurie Zeller said.

But it will cost them. Tattered Cover does few book fairs because "we can't be competitive, and a lot of schools recognize that," said operations manager Neil Strandberg.

Another local store, The Bookies, stopped doing book fairs 10 years ago because the accounting was too hard, owner Sue Lubeck said. The Bookies now has fundraising nights, when people from a school can come in for a discount.

"I know what's going on in this city, and it's not good. I have spoken with a couple of teachers who are interested, they think, in starting a book-fair company," she said. "It's a big undertaking. You have to have a warehouse, you have to have a tremendous inventory."

Almost all schools have book fairs, said Dave Sanger, former librarian at Denver's Baker Middle School and president of the Colorado Association of School Librarians. Schools typically keep 20 to 25 percent of a fair's revenue in cash or books. That can range from $500 in the inner city to $2,000 in the suburbs, he said.

Book fairs are valuable teaching aids, said DPS's Gehrig: "Kids can begin to build their own personal library, and they can usually do it with paperback books that don't cost very much."

— Eric Hübler
Denver Post
Parents ready to write Scholastic out of book-fair picture




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