Prescott, AZ – There's no mistaking the message on the large blue bins. They read "Books for Charity" in bright yellow letters five inches tall.
Richard Cady first saw one from across this Safeway parking lot last year.
A volunteer with the Prescott Public Library, Cady went over to get a look.
IN: It said something about helping children to read. It was very positive sort of thing
But then he read the small print. It said some of the books would be sold to cover expenses.
IN: I had a bad feeling about it. It didn't seem quite right.
So he poked around online. It turns out the bins are owned by a for-profit company called Thrift Recycling Management. The company does donate some of the books through a charity it helped create called the Reading Tree. But it also sells the books on places like Amazon.com. Last year, the company brought in 27 million dollars. The Reading Tree's website doesn't mention any of that.
Cady said it felt deceptive.
IN: It seems to me that that the average little old lady who is going grocery shopping at Safeway isn't going to figure this out. She's going to think that those books are going to children to teach them to read. And I don't think that's always the case.
The bins worry Cady because he helps run Prescott Library's used bookshop. It raises thousands of dollars for library programs by selling donated books. Like many Friends of Library groups around the country, Cady worries that the bins are siphoning off donations that normally would come to them.
The bins have also caught the eye of law enforcement.
IN: Our charitable activities section is looking whether donors were mislead.
That's Tony Green, from the Oregon State Department of Justice. In May, the department began investigating Thrift Recycling Management.
IN: There's some question about whether or not people who donated books properly understood how much of the money was going into a charity and how much was going to a for-profit company.
It's a question I had, too. So I called Thrift Recycling Management's founder and CEO, Phil McMullin. He wouldn't say how much of the 27 million they bring in comes from the blue bins. He did say the company donates 25 percent of the books it gets from them.
IN: TRM gives out a million books a year. There's nobody in the whole country who gives out a million books a year for free.
He said the bins are just one of many ways TRM collects books. The company started using them four years ago when it partnered with a charity that was collecting books for kids. The idea was that the charity, which turned into the Reading Tree, would profit by getting more books to distribute, and TRM would benefit by getting more books to sell.
IN: Does TRM make money at it? Sure. Are we driving Rolls Royces? No. Are we delighted with the service we're providing? We are.
He said 50 percent of the books they get from the bins are in such bad shape, they get recycled to keep them out of land fills. He said TRM sells the final 25 percent to cover the expense of processing the donations. And, to make a profit, though the boxes fail to say that.
I spoke to nearly all the groups in Arizona that TRM says it aided over the last year. It's about 2 dozen schools and literacy organizations around Phoenix and Tucson. And the donations are for real. Kathy Andrews says TRM helped her group, Phoenix Reads, get thousands of high quality books to low income kids through Boys and Girls Clubs.
IN: I would just be totally devastated if that whole line of supply is gone for those kids because they have just loved getting those books.
McMullin concedes his company needs to refine its message. Thrift Recycling Management is changing the wording on the bins. They'll no longer read Books for Charity, but they still won't say some of the books will be sold for profit. For Richard Cady, that's not good enough. If people donate books, he says, they should know exactly where they're going.
For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Claudine LoMonaco.