Not an Essay Question

Say, I hope it doesn’t seem that I’m trying to control every last little thing you do. I AM, of course; I just hope it doesn’t seem that way. I promise to use this power only for good.

But I am worried anew about you folks and your receipts. See, this Book Fair helps support the Newberry Library, which is a fully operational 501(c)3 outfit—that means if you give us something you can claim it on your income taxes. So we give out receipts. And, as I have mentioned before, this seems to confuse people.

No, you don’t HAVE to take one. I have actually had donors complain a receipt was forced on them. You need take a receipt only if you want one more piece of paper for Uncle Sam. Yeah, if you misplace it between now and April 15, we keep a carbon. But it’s not required. (Last time I saw a bill, I realized those forms cost about a nickel apiece, so I don’t throw ‘em at people.)

It’s not that difficult to manage if you do want one. We hand you the receipt book and you fill in the name and address so the IRS will recognize them, and describe the donation. One of us then signs and dates the form, gives you your copy (the white topsheet), and all is right and tight

For some reason, that bit about describing the donation gives some people conniptions. “Do I list the number of bags or the number of books? Do I have to list every single book? Should I put down a value for the books?”

What makes this hard to answer is that, basically, it’s YOUR receipt. You can write any old thing you want: it’s between you and the IRS (that’s what the fine print at the bottom is all about; it says we just took the stuff in. We don’t evaluate; we don’t recount.) If you give me ten bags of books and claim that’s 1,000 volumes, I may sign someone else’s name at the bottom (If you believe I’m the ex-governor of Illinois, that’s YOUR business.) but within reason, you can write whatever you want about the donation.

But gee whiz, some of you…. What good, exactly, does it do any of us for you to write “BOOKS”? Even I know the IRS would like a little more detail than that. On the other hand, those of you who write “1 audiocassette, country and western, 1 audiocassette, pop music, 2 audiocassettes, classics: 1 Debussy, 1 Saint-Saens, 2 movies on DVD (PBS documentaries), 1 economics book, 3 art books….” The elegant way some of you manage to fill every inch of space on the form is inspiring, but it is a noncarbon form, so “continued on back” just confuses matters.

And some of you get into editorial comment. “8 novels and 7 useful books’ ” tells me something about you that maybe the IRS doesn’t need to know. One lady always brings me “Books Of Antiquarian or Collectible Interest” which she then lists by title and date, with the names of the previous owners. (Sir Frederick Stock owned one of her books, she told me. Since he didn’t bother to write his name in it, this does me no good whatsoever, but it’s nice of her to keep me informed.)

It is okay with me if you say “10 bags of books”. It is okay with me if you say “45 hardcover books, 12 paperbacks, and 3 Blu-Ray discs.” I don’t mind “52 books, assorted paperback and hardcover”, and I don’t mind “17 hardcover books, 8 laminated placemats, 1 working microphone, 1 signed Matisse lithograph”. But to write, as one man did, “Stuff from my mother’s estate” is a little silly. (He thought so too. After I gave him his copy he looked it over, said “Oh, forget it”, and tore it up. Mom would have been proud.)

If all else fails, there’s a certain beauty in “See attached sheet”. As long as you bring a copy I can staple to the carbon, you can really go to town on it. (Some of these spreadsheets people bring, with columns for “Original Price”, “Depreciation of Value”, “Language”, “City and State Location of Publisher” and even, I swear, “Number of Times Read” need to be framed. NO! Forget I wrote that. If some people hear the receipts might be on exhibit one day, they’ll never finish filling them in.) 

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