By Jillian Risberg
Leonard DiMenna knows something about paying it forward. The Book Barn owner has made it his mission to aid endless charitable programs so they can save lives and alleviate the suffering of those in Morris County who need it most.
“I can’t say enough; the town gave them the ‘key to the city’ last year for all the great work they’ve done,” says Steve DuBlanica, Denville’s director of social services.
Back when, it was actually a dairy barn and surrounding farmlands on Pocono Road that provided milk, meat, vegetables and fruit to St. Clare’s Hospital and Saint Francis Residency until 1976.
The time-honored tradition of fundraising is well known there and any money they raised benefitted St. Clare’s Hospital, as part of its auxiliary. In 2015, St. Clare’s was sold to a California network of for-profit hospitals.
“It was never a moneymaking enterprise, it was always a charitable endeavor,” DuBlanica says.
After setting up shop where the former barn stood to the left of the Bargain Barn, the Thrift Barns of Morris County started offering a large selection of hardcover and paperback books, along with books on CD/audiotape and magazines.
According to the director of social services, you’re not going to get the latest bestseller there but they’ve got tons of children’s books and for you Agatha Christie fans, forget about buying her novels at the store, go to Book Barn — they probably have them all.
“All they do is take books in (and clothing, knick-knacks, housewares, thrift store jewelry, heirlooms) in the Bargain Barn and then sell them at greatly reduced prices,” says DuBlanica.
One can usually walk in with like $5 and walk out with an armful of books.
“You come here, browse around, it could be a book that’s been out of print for years and you’ll find it here,” says the Thrift Barns of Morris County president. “And some people, myself included, like to have a book in my hand, they don’t want to read on a Kindle.”
DiMenna says the ambiance coupled with so many books at such a reasonable rate — equals the attraction for many people to Book Barn.
It’s not Barnes & Noble. The book retailer may carry more than six million titles and 4.5 million eBooks but expect to chalk over some hard cash for just a pair of paperbacks or hardcovers there.
And DuBlanica says it’s not like when Burger King gives five cents for every whopper you buy.
“No — Book Barn and the Bargain Barn give almost 100 percent of everything you buy to charity,” says the director of social services. “Denville Social Services is one of the recipients of Book Barn’s largesse and their generosity is greatly appreciated.”
And definitely needed. While he works with excellent volunteers, the director of social services is the only paid staff.
“I’m here part-time, the township pays my salary and very generous office and storage space but everything else is donated,” DuBlanica says. “So the food we give out to the food pantry is either donated by people or purchased with funds that we have.”
That money puts them in a better position to buy fresh meat and dairy products for their clients.
“We also have the ability to send children to summer programs that they otherwise could not afford,” says the director of social services.
And they’ve provided emergency assistance with hotel room stays, whether it’s someone losing their home to a fire or down on their luck and needs a place to stay for the night.
“We have clients with children and sometimes the children want to play football but they can’t afford the equipment so we paid for that,” DuBlanica says. “Or we’ve helped kids go to basketball school or summer camp.”
He says it has also allowed them to help Dial-a-ride purchase a new bus for seniors after theirs broke down.
“Buses are a fortune and we were able to defray part of that cost because we had that money so generously provided by the Book Barn, which in turn was generously provided by its patrons,” says the director of social services.
So every time people buy something there, that money is going to great causes, Denville Social Services is just one of them.
“He’s given to the Joey Bella Fund, Roots and Wings (which helps kids aged out of the Foster care system), to other food pantries, other soup kitchens,” DuBlanica says.
Every local cause that they give to, including Denville Social Services needs funds to operate.
And that list is extensive, including Denville Police, Denville Fire, Celebrate the Children, Knights of Columbus, America’s Foreign Legion, New Beginnings, Wounded Warriors, the local VFW, Alzheimer’s Association of New Jersey, Eleventh Hour Rescue, Rise Up Rockaway and many more.
In 2018, when the Denville Police needed tactical vests for the safety of their officers, they approached Book Barn for assistance.
“We asked how much and then we gave that amount,” says volunteer Annie Schussler. “This year we followed up with two more tactical vests because they had two more guys on the force.”
According to DiMenna, they are going to start setting up scholarship funds for the high schools, community colleges and vocational schools.
And the president of Thrift Barns of Morris County says since they have very little overhead — it allows them to really give back to the community in all the ways that matter, so they also wanted to help special needs children.
“We helped Celebrate the Children towards their Elementary Play Project playground this past year,” DiMenna says.
The Book Barn is an indispensable part of those types of causes and projects, and the director of social services says without them a lot of charities wouldn’t be able to do the work that they do.
“So they’re real heroes in my book,” DuBlanica says.
He grew up near Passaic, where there was an old used book store.
“You could get everything,” says the director of social services. “There used to be places like that in New York and those places are pretty much gone.”
Books aren’t going away but you’d be hard pressed to find the little hole in the wall, off the beaten path, diamond in the rough bookstore anymore that not everyone knows about but those who do love it.
At first they were replaced by large bookstore chains and then sunk by e-commerce, the bane of any small bookshop’s existence.
That’s what makes Book Barn so special. And the store’s volunteers work especially hard, always ready and willing to share their knowledge. The director of social services says that’s why all the money they raise adds up.
“I’m in awe of the volunteers; they’re a real dedicated group — it’s a beautiful thing and an amazing asset to the community. Then they turn around and give back,” says Schussler. “I don’t know how they do it because they are retirees and yet they’re on their feet working those shelves all day long.”
She says this is unique to this place.
“Good Will is nice but there’s a lot of criticism and I understand both of them. (Book Barn) is a lot of man-hours and hard to get volunteers to do this for free.”
When you give, you’re more likely to receive. The science of generosity just makes sense why giving really does make you feel better.
According to numerous studies about giving, it’s why so many people are willing to open their wallets to Book Barn or to charity; it will make them much happier than spending it on themselves.
“It’s a great way for you to spend money so you get your reading jones but you’ve also made an impact in the community,” DuBlanica says. “This is a very generous town and the Book Barn is in many ways emblematic of that generosity. I hope this jewel keeps going for a long time. I just wish more people knew about it and went there.”
For those who’ve never had the pleasure of being lost in the stacks — you’ll find more than 200,000 titles on the shelves at Book Barn.
“We have books on every topic you can think about; religion, history, foreign language, classics, travel, large print, romance novels, fiction/non-fiction, famous authors, health, self-help, business and computer books, psychology, humor, fantasy, college reference, so there’s something for everyone,” DiMenna says.
According to the Thrift Barns of Morris County president, they are always looking ahead for new ideas to enhance the Book Barn experience for their patrons.
“I don’t know any other store anywhere that does what we do,” DiMenna says, adding that he took over as owner in 2013 and “hasn’t looked back since.”
Schussler echoes that sentiment and calls Book Barn the ultimate recycling center.
“This is not something where you donate your plastics and it gets melted down; there is very little processing — and prevents so many things into the landfills and it’s out of print books,” she says. “Saying goodbye to possessions of a loved one; we accept it all.”