Open Books bookstore is working to raise literacy rates

Walking into Open Books, Chicago’s not-for-profit bookstore, you are immediately struck by how welcoming the space is. Books are everywhere, on low, well-lit shelves painted in every color of the rainbow. Nooks with comfortable chairs and seating are scattered all over the store, encouraging browsing.

Open Books is working to improve literacy rates in Chicago and make sure low-income homes have books to enjoy. The bookstore offers 50,000 books for sale, 10,000 of which are children’s books.

“This was my dream and a challenge,” says Kevin Elliott, the bookstore manager. “We didn’t want this to be your typical bookstore. We make sure our stock will appeal to everyone.”

The store offers regular storytimes and book discussions as well as special events co-sponsored by organizations such as the Neighborhood Parents Network, Wishcraft, More Than Milk and the Emerald City Theater Company. This month features a Day of Dr. Seuss, noon-4 p.m. March 3, with storytimes, the Cat in the Hat, face painting and other events.

But the store is only one component of Open Books’ mission. Upstairs you find colorful classrooms, with large windows and a creative atmosphere that helps to fuel the many volunteer-staffed literacy programs.

“In our ReadThenWrite program, students read a book and then write a story in the same vein as the book,” says LizzyBoden, bookstore coordinator. “Then we collect the stories and format them into a book, which is published online through Lulu and each student is given a copy. Many of these students don’t have books in their homes. Think of the impact of having a book in your house that you helped to write and has your name in it.”

While shopping and supporting Open Books through buying books is important, “book donations make all the difference in the world. We don’t just sell every book we get, we give books away to our students, and organizations can apply for book grants through our website,” Boden says.

Elliott says all book donations are tax deductible.

Collecting books for a book drive is a perfect service project for scouts or school and youth groups. Or families can stop by and bring a bag of gently used books to donate and then look for new things to read on the shelves.

Stacy Meyer was thrilled when her son David chose to organize a book drive as his bar mitzvah project. “I loved it that Open Books is such a self-supporting organization. The response from the staff when we brought the books brought tears to my eyes,” Meyer says.

David, an avid reader, says people donated nearly 1,300 books.

“It meant that other people cared just as much as I did about reading,” he says.

Meyer says Open Books makes it easy for a family to help. And Boden says she enjoys meeting the customers.

“Being able to do something I love for a good cause is super fulfilling,” Boden says. “I was part of the first volunteer group and then I just didn’t want to leave. To see how it’s changed and grown and regular customers and volunteers, that’s just one of the things that makes this place so amazing.”

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