Shoppers at the Orinda Safeway grocery store last week were greeted with a bright blue bin marked "Books for Charity" -- and a flier warning them to take their unwanted tomes elsewhere.
Orinda resident Linda Landau taped the flier to the bin after she learned about the close relationship between the nonprofit that sponsors the bins and a for-profit seller based in Washington state.
The national organization Reading Tree placed the bins at 90 Northern California locations in April for people to donate their unwanted books to charity.
But Landau, treasurer of the Orinda Friends of the Library, and other library advocates worry the bins take books that might have otherwise benefitted local libraries, and wonder how many of them are actually donated.
"Those books aren't going to charity, by and large, and they're going out of the area to an out-of-state company, a for-profit company," Landau said.
That company is Lakewood, Wash.-based Thrift Recycling Management, which founded Reading Tree in 2008 and calls itself "the largest seller of used media on the Internet." Thrift President Jeff McMullin serves on the Reading Tree board of directors.
Reading Tree Executive Director Gina Zambori and Thrift founder Phil McMullin on Thursday referred questions about the bins to Safeway spokeswoman Susan Houghton.
But Zambori told Bay Area News Group earlier last week that Thrift manages the bins, and picks up and sorts the books. About 25 percent of the books are donated; half are recycled and turned to pulp, with proceeds from pulp sales going back to Reading Tree. The remainder are sold online by Thrift to pay for their services.
Houghton said she could not speak for areas outside of Northern California, but insisted no books dropped into local bins are sold for profit.
"Every single book that is received will be donated unless it is in a condition that it cannot be," Houghton said, referring to donations that are recycled, like damaged books, out-of-date titles (old encyclopedias, for example) and magazines.
Books that cannot be given to schools go to senior centers or any other nonprofit that wants them, she said.
Earlier this month, Reading Tree gave 2,500 books to elementary students in Oakland in conjunction with Bay Area-based nonprofit Reading Partners.
Complaints about the bins from library groups in Oregon have led the charities division of that state's Department of Justice to take a closer look at the relationship between Thrift and Reading Tree, a spokesman said.
Groups in Lafayette and Palo Alto have also voiced concerns.
The Friends of the Lafayette Library's used bookstore, which accepts donations, is a major part of the group's efforts to support the city's library, said Sharon Lingane, the store's manager.
"I'm afraid that "... the presence of these bins will basically put our book shop out of business," she said.
If library groups are worried the donation bins will eat into their revenue stream, Safeway is happy to give them the key to the bins so they can take any deposited books they would like, Houghton said.
"If library foundations want to resell them, we would be happy to be the location and the repository to collect them," she said.
That offer does not satisfy Landau, who said it would just create more work for Friends volunteers, many of whom are seniors. They would have to unload the bins and bring the books back to their warehouse.
"Why are they doing this?" Landau said. "What's in it for them? If they're willing to give us all the books, why not remove the bins?"
Palo Alto Daily News staff writer Diana Samuels contributed to this report. Contact Jonathan Morales at 925-943-8048. Follow him at Twitter.com/sosaysjonathan.