That was the revelation on which Whalen founded his company, Give My Books in 2008. He was twenty-five and waiting tables at Weber’s when a coworker mentioned that he sold books online for fun.

“I asked him how he got his books,” Whalen recalls. “He said I should go around to all the garage sales and estate sales and thrift stores in the area and buy the books to resell.

“I thought to myself, ‘That seems like a lot of work that takes a lot of time.’ ” He realized that if people were willing to give their books to thrift stores, they might be willing to give them to him, too. “I figured people just needed to know that I wanted their books, and that I could use them for a good purpose.

“It was like this beautiful little nugget of wisdom,” Whalen recalls. He’d never been an avid reader, but now he saw books as a way out of a life of minimum-wage jobs and into a lifelong career.

“Ever see those pink signs around town that say ‘Huge Book Sale’? That’s us,” Whalen says. | Photo by Mark Bialek

He initially worked from his parents’ garage on Jay Lee Ct. near Bryant School. After some trial and error—early on he rented a warehouse and realized that was overhead he did not need and could not afford—he built a barn behind his own house nearby and invested in two trucks. Now, Whalen says, six employees—including his wife and stepson—collect 250,000 books a year in five Michigan counties.

Every book is scanned, he says, and “the barcodes tell us the value.” That determines whether it’s “sold wholesale to a bookseller, or to a different bookstore, or if it is suitable for our book sale [at the barn], or year-round at the bookstore at my parents’ garage.” Whalen says he’ll take just about any kind of book, as long as it’s not mildewed and not an encyclopedia. “Wikipedia killed encyclopedias,” he says.

They’ll have two more summer sales this year, running Thursday through Saturday, July 21–23 and August 25–27 (with a presale on Wednesday for teachers and home-school families). “Ever see those pink signs around town that say ‘Huge Book Sale’? That’s us,” Whalen says. All books are $1, audiobooks $3, and DVDs $2–$4—plus there are video games, puzzles, and board games. 

The ones that aren’t sold—more than 30,000 last year—Whalen gives away to schools and teachers. He expects to donate 50,000 this year and is aiming for 100,000 in 2023. In addition to direct donations, anyone can order up to ten free books for pickup using the coupon code “50kFREEBOOKGIVEAWAY” at jlcbooksale.com. It will be valid, he says, “until we run out of books.” (They’ll also ship for a fee.)

Like many other businesses, Give My Books took a hit during the pandemic, and like so many other families, Whalen’s had to turn to food banks like SOS Community Services and the Bryant Community Center. They’ve since recovered, and in gratitude, during last year’s summer book sales, he and his staff raised over $1,500 for Food Gatherers.

“I’m a spiritual man,” Whalen says. “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness. My motto for business comes from Ecclesiastes 12. It says, ‘to the making of many books there is no end.’ Hey, it’s job security, going in the book-selling business.”

“My favorite little line, that I put at the end of the little checkout slip, is: ‘Please do not steal.’ If you genuinely want something that you don’t have the money for, just let us know and we’ll give it to you for free. That way you can leave here with a clean conscience.”