by Barbara Sherf
Mt. Airy resident Mildred Coates is known around town as “The Book Lady.” This spry 84-year-old spends her days using public transportation to get to thrift shops, used book stores, flea markets, libraries and ‘wherever books are sold.’ She matches books in a wide variety of genres to dozens of avid readers who are part of an informal group called “For Love of Books” (FLOB).
With a colorful turban on her head, she came rushing into the Chestnut Hill Branch of the library on a recent Monday afternoon apologizing for her slight delay in getting there. “I’m sorry, but I was having lunch, and the waitress needed a math book for a test she was taking tonight. I ran to the thrift store a half-block away and got what she needed,” said Coates. “She was having problems with division, and I found just the right book.”
Finding just the right book for just the right person is her calling. One of 12 children, Coates grew up near Willow Grove and fell in love with books in the first grade. She eventually married and moved to a little down in Virginia, about 75 miles south of Washington D.C., serving as the manager of the Ace Book Store for 21 years. Once her husband died, she moved back home to be near her remaining family, and now lives with her sister. She never had children, but has plenty of nieces and nephews for whom (you guessed it) she finds books.
The Friends of the Library weekly used book sale in Chestnut Hill is one of her regular haunts on Monday afternoons. Molly Russakoff, owner of Molly’s Used Books near the Italian Market in South Philadelphia, was there because of Coates. “She was in my book store, and she started telling me about this sale. Now she helps me find books for my store and is a regular customer. She is a true book lover.”
Chestnut Hill resident Renee Poulsky oversees the Friends group and started the used book sale more than 10 years ago. The Friends will be out by the fountain at the Top of the Hill Plaza during the May 1 Chestnut Hill Garden Festival with boxes of used books for sale from 11 to 5, and Coates plans to be there.
“Oh I never miss it. I like the Monday afternoons because it’s indoors, but if it’s nice out, I’ll be there because they dig deep and bring out a lot of good finds.”
Coates is always on the lookout for “good finds.” Her day begins with taking a bus locally or a regional train into Center City to look for books. She doesn’t keep a list. It’s all in her head. With few exceptions, she doesn’t have a regular routine.
“Some days I’ll walk outside and feel like heading over to Rising Sun (Avenue) in the Northeast. Other days I’ll head into Center City and go to Robin’s Books or maybe even one of the stores that sells new books just to see what’s hot. It depends on my mood and the bus or train schedule,” said Coates, showing the SEPTA pass tucked in her pocket. “This is my ticket. The bus is free, and the train is a buck.”
When asked how much she spends on used books in a given week, she had to think about it very hard. “Hmmm. I never really thought about it. Maybe $20, sometimes more, sometimes less.” On a crisp Friday morning she was in the Bargain Thrift Shop in Germantown looking for books for Glenda McCall, who has a unique Halloween project.
“I came up with the idea of handing out gently used books to children with the candy. I put a little note in the book telling the parent to hold onto the book if the child is not ready for it yet,” said McCall, who worked as a teacher in the Philadelphia School District for more than 35 years. “We met here one day as I was perusing the books and now Mildred scours the city for books for me, and she won’t take a penny.”
“That’s just how I work,” said Coates. “The books are usually only 10 cents or 50 cents at most. I don’t charge.” If members of FLOB persist, she asks them to make a donation to one of two scholarship funds she has set up; one in her husband’s name and one in her parents’ names. “One man sent me $250 toward the fund. I was shocked.”
She has also collected and donated 16 boxes of books to the Imani Charter School, located on Chelten Avenue, not far from her home. “I hate to see good books go to waste. Some people actually put books at the curb for the trash men to take. Can you imagine that?” she said shaking her head and noting that she was raised during the Depression.
Coates’ devotion to bringing people together with the right books is almost a religious experience. “The Bible says it is better to give than to receive. So I give.”
Mildred gives antique and collectibles books to George Hobe, who has an antiques business in Chestnut Hill. She gives books to 91-year-old Chestnut Hill resident Carmella Upright, who likes books about Philadelphia and its history. She sends books to former customers in Virginia. She gives books to a young man who is interested in chess. She gives books to an 89-year-old man who is fascinated with Napoleon. She gives to anyone who is in need of a book.
“What else am I going to do? Sit around watching TV all day.” But come 7 in the evening, don’t call her at home. “That’s Jeopardy time. Anyone who knows me knows my sister and I are watching Jeopardy,” she laughs.
As for what she herself reads? “I do like historical novels, but then I start paging through books I’ve gotten for others, and I have to say I find all books interesting. I love all books. I really do.”
Donations in memory of Coates’ husband, John Edward Coates, can be made to The Coates-Terry Scholarship Fund, First Baptist Church of Merrifield, 8122 Ransell Rd., Falls Church, VA 22042. Donations in memory of her parents can be made to Nelson and Eppie Scholarship Fund, McKinley Memorial Baptist Church, 212 Cedar Ave., Willow Grove, PA 19090. Barbara Sherf can be reached at 215-233-8022 or Barb@CommunicationsPro.com.