From a second story warehouse in City Heights, Irwin "The Bookman" Herman receives a continuous stream of vistors; mostly well wishers and old friends stopping by to say hello. Herman's office is a single desk surrounded by bookcases on the open floor of the warehouse.
Casual in dress but sharp as a tack and intensely conversational with guests, he's vigorous in speech and words leave his mouth with the intent to inspire and educate the listener. He's got 80 plus years of life to draw from, starting with tough times growing up in Chicago.
At age 12, with a bedridden father, he quickly became the household breadwinner. "There were six in my house and nobody went to bed hungry," he says.
Herman grew an appliance repair business and became wealthy, retiring in comfort in San Diego. The business he started was handed over to a son. Not long after arriving in San Diego, he visited the old Descanso jail and noticed an absence of reading material for the prisoners. He returned with a load of books purchased from garage sales and stocked the facility's empty shelves.
That incident sparked Herman's relentless drive to collect and distribute books free of charge to other needy groups including, juvenile and adult prisoners, schools, and the elderly.
His organization, started in 1988 and called The Bookman, emerged into a local and global force for literacy. To date, he estimates he's given away 12 million books. Many a local jail, detention facility, prison, school, and nursing home can trace their libraries back to The Bookman.
Commendations on official city letterhead, letters of thanks from countless school kids, plaques, and photographs line the humble walls leading into the spacious 7,000 foot warehouse. A world map pinpoints every location his books have been shipped to. The continent of Africa has been exceptionally well served.
Herman and his volunteers supply the books for distribution, but do not incur the costs for exporting them. All costs and arrangements are handled by the receiver. "We don't pick, pack, or ship," he says. But they do deliver locally using several donated vehicles including a van with the license plate "BK MAN SD."
At 80, and feeling it, Herman has no desire to fold up operations after 26 years. But problems linger and threaten to shut him down involuntarily. His financial situation remains precarious as medical bills mount due to his wife's long term illness.
Herman has never pulled in a salary for his work and his personal funds are dwindling. In addition, the lease on the warehouse is up in May and renewal will include a steep increase in rent. Until then he's grandfathered into a sweetheart deal with the former landlord that equates to free rent.
"We've had a hell of a run," laments Herman, "But we're not going away."
As of this writing, The Bookman is still looking for space to rent for little or no cost, but they are adapting nicely with book sales over the internet to keep the lights on. It turns out he's often gifted very pricey and in-demand technical books which are pulled from inventory and placed immediately in the online marketplace. Through these efforts, he's able to pay bills and perhaps forestall a premature cessation of operations.
Finding a replacement to do what he does is almost out of the question. "Nobody's as crazy as I am," says Herman.
4275 37th Street
San Diego, Ca
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