Green Bagging It

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Indie booksellers are waging the green revolution on several fronts -- developing and expanding Green Living/Environmental sections, offering green sidelines, reducing waste, and increasing energy efficiency. Related green issues of particular interest, as evidenced by discussions at recent ABA Booksellers Forums, are how to reduce the use of merchandise bags and what to provide as an eco-friendly alternative. Several bookstores recently spoke to BTW about their creative, sustainable bag solutions.

"Instead of a frequent buyer card we have a frequent buyer bag," said Tom Holbrook of RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. "It costs [the customer] $10, is made of American made organic cotton, and gets you 10 percent off every time you bring it to the store. And, of course, it has our logo on both sides so we also get advertising. We market it as a win-win-win situation. Good for the environment, a deal for the customer, and advertising for us."

Holbrook said RiverRun started the program six months ago and has 300 bags in circulation. The bags cost the store $7 each, which includes printing on both sides. Holbrook orders them through a local T-shirt/design company, but he said they're also available at

Holbrook also said that he's trying bags made of a biodegradable material derived from corn and that the bags feel and look like those made of plastic. "These bags compost in 60 days if they are put in a compost pile, or deteriorate the same as food if just thrown in the trash. These are great, but a little too weak for books and their sharp corners. I'm still looking for a tougher corn bag."

Patience Sandrof at Dragon Books in Weston, Massachusetts, described the ChicoBag, a colorful nylon reusable bag that has an integrated stuff sack and an attached carabineer, as a perfect green sideline. "They're awesome," she said. "They're fun to sell, come in great colors, and were a great stocking stuffer before Christmas. You can hook it to your key chain...." The bags wholesale for $2.50 for orders of 100 and can be ordered with a logo imprinted on both the bag and the stuff sack.

Harvard Book Store, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is evaluating an effective eco-friendly bag program, said Carole Horne. "We don't have a program yet, but are considering giving people 10 cents off if customers use our canvas bag." Horne has also been considering cheap reusable bags from 1 Bag at a Time. A minimum order of 3,000 bags is required to have a logo printed on both sides, at a cost of 95 cents per bag. The bags are made in China, but the manufacturer works with the nonprofit organization Verite to ensure that the bags are manufactured under safe, fair, and legal working conditions, said Horne. The bags are made from non-woven polypropylene fabric, which is non-toxic and allergy-free.

In Hudson, Ohio, The Learned Owl Book Shop's Liz Murphy said that she was in the process of placing an order for 100 percent recycled bags. "We also have Learned Owl canvas bags, which we sell for $6, give away with a purchase of $100 or more, and often use as a promotion," said Murphy. "For instance, right now they are free with a $15 purchase and a receipt from a fellow merchant.

"And of course we always ask if [customers] want a bag ... and maybe we'll change to asking if they need a bag."

Several other booksellers also mentioned that they pose the bag question in terms of "need" rather than "want." At Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge Island, Washington, staff ask customers, "Do you want to go 'bagless on Bainbridge'?" Mary Gleysteen said that in the past Eagle Harbor predominantly used paper bags because those bags are more readily recycled locally, but in April the store stopped stocking plastic merchandise bags altogether.

"We participated in a program sponsored by Sustainable Bainbridge and the local Chamber of Commerce, which made a large number of reusable, mesh shopping bags available for local merchants to purchase and distribute to their customers on Earth Day," said Gleysteen. "We gave them away to everyone who redeemed a frequent buyer card that day or spent more than $50. We continue to give them away with $50 purchases and sell them at our cost, which is $1.50.... The community distribution of reusable bags has increased awareness of the issue locally, and dramatically reduced the number of requests we get for bags."

At Lafayette Book Store in Lafayette, California, store owner Dave Simpson decided instead of offering paper or plastic bags, he'd offer something better -- nothing.

"Books aren't like apples that are going to roll around in the back of the car," said Simpson in an interview with Sustainable Lafayette. Only rarely do people actually 'need' a bag. So we stopped providing them!"

What the store provides instead is a $1 tote bag, which it sells below cost. While store staff gets the occasional eye roll, nearly all of its customers are happy to keep bags out of the landfill.

Mysterious Galaxy Books in San Diego will be launching a new reusable bag at its 15th anniversary party. "Our canvas bags have a black body and a gusseted bottom with a generous, green exterior pocket with a Velcro fastener," said co-owner Maryelizabeth Hart. "The green pocket has several interior sub-pockets for organization. The straps are adjustable to different lengths. We will be launching the bags at our Birthday Bash, and they will be the gift for our authors at author events during the course of the year, as well as available for purchase. The bags will sell for $15, and we will be rewarding customers who use them rather than paper or plastic bags with a variety of special offers over the course of the year."

Beginning June 1, the American Booksellers Association will have a new authorized bag vendor: W.G. Ellerkamp, Inc., a second-generation family business based in Peterborough, New Hampshire. ABA will be using their Recycled Natural Kraft bags.

"We are a relatively small company and we pride ourselves on providing extraordinary personal service and timely shipping," said W.G. Ellerkamp owner, Jack Ellerkamp. "We work exclusively with independent retailers, many of them family owned -- just like our company! We like to think of ourselves as a leader in the area of recycled retail packaging -- particularly Recycled Natural Kraft bags."

W.G. Ellerkamp will be offering two sizes of handled shopping bags for ABA members. The shopping bags are 100 percent recycled, with a minimum of 95 percent post-consumer recycled content. The smaller "flat bags" are recycled as well, with a minimum of 50 percent post-consumer recycled content. On the bottom of the bags, there will be text indicating that the bags are recycled.

Noting that the bags are recycled "is indeed something we want to communicate to consumers and the public," said Ellerkamp. "By going with post-consumer recycled bags we are, collectively, reducing our carbon footprint and, perhaps equally as importantly, sending the right message to consumers. And, by sending the right message, we are often encouraging others to do the same." --Karen Schechner