Sharon Anderson Wright may be a successful CEO, but her idea of fun is snapping up a pair of $10 cowboy boots at a thrift shop. "I still stop off at garage sales," she says. "And I pick up a used newspaper to read at the airport. People laugh at me."
If only they knew! As Wright says, "My life was built on secondhand stuff." The head of Half Price Books, she runs the country's largest used-book company, a $100 million enterprise with 74 stores in 10 states nationwide. The chain, which buys and sells printed or recorded material from individuals as well as remaindered stock from publishers, has become a bargain hunter's mecca. "It's like going to a garage sale," says Matt Rogers, 36, a weekly customer at the Dallas flagship store. "You never know what you'll find."
Yet Wright's company, celebrating its 30th anniversary in June, has loftier ambitions. Cofounded by Wright's activist mother, Patricia Anderson, Half Price Books also embraces social and environmental causes. It donates more than 1 million books a year to schools, prisons and hospitals and sponsors literacy programs around the country. "Not only do they provide books, they take on the distribution expense, too," says Michael Hirschhorn, president of the National Alliance of Urban Literacy Coalitions. "These books are like manna from heaven to low-income families."
Additionally Wright, 42, encourages her 1,400 employees to pursue philanthropic activities of their choosing. "It enriches their lives," she says, "and they enrich ours."
The youngest of three sisters born to cuckoo-clock and silver salesman William Anderson, who died in 1984, and homemaker Patricia, Wright was 5 when her family moved from Tulsa to Dallas. Her parents divorced in 1971, and Patricia began dating Ken Gjemre, a buyer for a jewelry company. The couple, both strong environmentalists, realized that their old books could be put to a meaningful and potentially profitable use. "Nobody was recycling books then," says Wright. "They hated seeing all this great stuff thrown away."
In 1972 they opened their first store in a converted Dallas launderette. Wright, then 13, drew the signs and stocked the shelves. They took in $200 on opening day. Says Gjemre, now 81 and retired in Ojai, Calif.: "I knew we had a winner."
Within eight months they had made enough money to bankroll a second store, and the company rapidly expanded. After she completed high school in 1976, Wright began managing the eighth store, in Dallas. She met future husband Ken Wright, a musician, when he began working at the company a decade later. "I was just keeping my head down, trying to be a good employee," says Ken, 51. "It didn't occur to me that she might be interested in me." By the time they married in 1993, Sharon was the firm's general manager. In 1995, after her mother died of lung disease, she became CEO.
Wright, who still lives in her childhood Dallas home with Ken (now vice president of merchandising) and kids William Patrick, 3, and Ivy, 4 months, remains focused on her mother's legacy. Paying herself a relatively small, five-figure salary (employees too are paid modestly but are given shares in the company that they sell back when they retire), Wright has spurned numerous offers for the family business. "We could have been rich many times over," she says. "But my mom made a commitment to do the right thing, and it's my job to uphold it."
Gabrielle Cosgriff in Dallas
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