Books bolster the Rehabilitation Institute of Kansas City

To the people at the Rehabilitation Institute of Kansas City, the idea seemed like a win-win for both disabled people and the environment:

Rehabilitate lives by recycling and, now, reselling old books.

At 10 a.m. today, the RIKC Book Store — created to raise money for the nonprofit’s programs while also putting disabled people to work — is set to open at 3010 Main St.

“People with disabilities are one of the most disenfranchised communities,” said Rick Caplan, the institute’s director of new business development. “The great heart and soul of this is that it employs people who are disabled. Many, many people with disabilities simply want the dignity of having a job.”

Those people include Evan Waters, 31, the bookstore’s new researcher and librarian who for months has been culling thousands of books donated to the institute by public schools, universities and libraries.

His goal has been to pick out fun or, in some cases, even rare books — including an 1863 edition of “The Golden Manual,” a guide to Catholic devotion — that could be sold at the store or online.

“There are some interesting foreign language books; there’s a German translation of Darwin and of Emerson,” said Waters, who has Asperger’s syndrome and was aided by the institute with employment placement. He works at the store about 15 hours per week.

“We have an early edition of ‘Gone with the Wind’ and an early edition of Faulkner,” he said. “It’s a fun job.”

Caplan, who knew that schools and libraries have tons of old books that end up being recycled, has a history of running operations that raise money by selling goods that might otherwise end up in landfills.

Between 1993 and 2000, he was executive director of Surplus Exchange, which resells used computers, electronics and office furniture. He also devised the business plan for Kansas City’s Habitat for Humanity ReStore, which sells surplus home fixtures, furniture, appliances and construction materials to raise money for Habitat’s work building homes for needy families.

The Rehabilitation Institute annually helps about 2,000 individuals with developmental, physical and neurological disabilities that range from mild to severe. It runs a medical rehab facility and performs employment placement. It also runs a sheltered workshop, where about 200 client/employees are paid to work upward of 30 hours each week doing basic assembly jobs, such as placing nuts and bolts in plastic bags or cleaning wire hangers, for various industries.

Caplan thought used books could create more jobs for the institute’s clientele.

Using a $15,000 grant from the philanthropic group Impact KC and a $44,000 grant from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the Mid-America Research Council Solid Waste Management District, the institute last year bought a $19,000 machine that strips the bindings and covers from books, plus a paper baling machine. The grants also partially underwrote salaries.

“Oh, man, we hit the ground running. We probably had 50 tons of books before we even got the de-binding machine,” Caplan said. “I just went out and started knocking on doors, contacting libraries.”

The institute hired a full-time truck driver who picks up pallets of books from libraries, school and other institutions. The books are dropped off at the institute’s workshop at 30th and Main streets. Three client/workers are paid above minimum wage to sort the books, run them through the de-binder and separate out the paper, which is then sold to a recycling company for about $100 a ton. That’s the equivalent of about 1,500 books.

Books with their bindings intact would bring only about $20 a ton, Caplan said.

Total so far: Some 450,000 books have been collected, about 300 tons, raising close to $30,000.

The bookstore was born when it became obvious that some of the books were too rare or at least too desirable to dismantle. They’re arranged on shelves in a former storage room just inside the institute’s entrance, where they sell for 50 cents to $40 or more.

Hardback copies from the Harry Potter or Twilight series: $1 each.

A 1946 edition of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men”: $15.

A 1927 University of Missouri yearbook: $5.

“It won’t make a net profit for 2012, but it will for 2013,” Caplan said of the recycling and bookstore programs combined.

“What’s going to be great about this is that it’s going to be self-sufficient within a year.”

Then the goal, he said, is to get another de-binding machine and put more people to work.