Non-profit bookstore a beachhead in literacy battle

Categories: Chicago Tribune

Bookstore proceeds to fund reading advocacy

By MARK GUARINO | Special to the Chicago Tribune

Becca Keaty is effusive when it comes to her favorite subject: books.

“I almost get physically overwhelmed by how many books there are in the world and how little time I get to read them,” she says. “There’s nothing more exciting than that moment before you start a new book, or trying to decide which next book to read.”

She and her partner in the Open Books literacy advocacy project want to share that love of reading through a new nonprofit bookstore in River North that is stocked with donated books that can be bought for as little as $1.

She, partner Stacy Ratner and an army of volunteers have been working long hours for several months hauling, sorting, shelving and cataloging 130,000 used books in preparation for the opening this weekend at 213 Institute Place.

The Open Books bookstore will look and operate like any other except that proceeds will fund literacy programs for children and adults in the same building. It’s the next step for the organization founded three years ago to run programs aimed at improving reading and writing skills.

Through viral marketing, word-of-mouth and savvy salesmanship, Keaty, 31, and Ratner, 37 — two business professionals with a shared background in corporate marketing and small-business entrepreneurship — quickly amassed a volunteer list totaling 4,000, a small staff, corporate grants and thousands of books donated from Itasca to Iraq.

Their model is already bringing queries from literacy advocates in other cities who hope to raise awareness — and funds — in their communities.

Literacy is a “silent crisis,” says David Harvey, president and CEO of Pro Literacy, an international group based in Syracuse, N.Y., that is planning to hold its annual conference in Chicago in March.

Literacy is affected by different factors: undiagnosed learning disabilities, immigrants arriving in the U.S. who cannot read or write in their native language and young people who are underserved by the education system, Harvey says. Today, about 30 million adults read at or below the sixth-grade level and about 15 million adults read below a third-grade level, he says.

Also contributing to the problem are budget shortfalls nationwide, which threaten funding for literacy programs that has not increased in more than a decade.

“We are way below other Western industrialized countries in terms of what we invest to fix this problem,” Harvey says.

As funding decreases, demand may increase. With a recession, unskilled workers are often on the front line of layoffs and then seek basic literacy skills in order to re-enter the work force, Harvey says.

“This issue totally intersects with economic recovery and the global economic competitiveness of the U.S. So one piece of the puzzle to improve the American economy is to fix this issue,” he says.

In Chicago, literacy is affecting neighborhoods like North Lawndale, where there is a high concentration of poverty and rock bottom graduation rates, says Tim Shanahan, a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago who runs the Center for Literacy, a think tank studying literacy and education trends.

Shanahan says that as manufacturing jobs become less about brawn and more about technical skills, workers with low-level reading skills suffer the most. While people with some skills outnumber those who can’t read or write their own name, those skills aren’t enough to succeed in a workplace that is becoming more rigorous.

“It used to be if you were low on literacy, you could still make a decent salary,” he says. “You can’t be like that anymore. It’s unacceptable. Being at an average level of literacy probably means you’re going to struggle a bit being able to deliver the kind of work your employer wants.”

The startling literacy statistics are what prompted Keaty and Ratner to talk in 2006 about launching Open Books. They met while working at the same dot-com start up and discovered they shared a love of books.

“I was turning 35 and I wanted to do something better with my life,” says Ratner, who describes her three-bedroom house as now having one bedroom and a two-room library. “It was definitely one of life’s turning points where you want to make the world a better place than what you had been doing.”

When launched, Open Books ran literacy classes and collected books to sell online, but a bookstore was always a goal.

To make it happen meant creating buzz about the organization through booths at local music festivals, bike events, street parties and other high-profile events.

“We are trying to put a modern twist on a nonprofit by taking control of our revenue stream,” says Keaty. “We’re not waiting for the money to come in, we’re doing it ourselves by starting our business.”

Once word got out, the book onslaught began. In the organization’s first year, there were 10,000 books, forcing the partners to rent warehouse space on the West Side. Today that space is filled with 80,000 books. An extra 50,000 are shelved at the bookstore, ready to be sold.

Keaty says about 11,000 books arrive each month. Donations come in the form of professional libraries from corporations or personal holdings handed over by a family after the death of a loved one. Others arrive via book drives in the suburbs.

About 2,000 books arrived from an Army unit posted in Iraq. A soldier found the organization through its Web site and won approval from her commander to ship the books back to the U.S. where they would find a good home.

The store will be staffed by two employees and volunteers. Children and adults can take reading and creative writing programs upstairs, and the bookstore will host readings by authors and occasional live music.

Children will find a generous supply of books for them, unlike in most used bookstores where the focus is on adults, Keaty says.

Having a tangible location where literacy can be discussed and encouraged is essential.

“One thing about literacy is, it isn’t really known yet to the world as a cause. We don’t have cool yellow rubber bracelets. We don’t have a big, splashy campaign, but reading is one of the most fundamental things in life. It deserves to be fun. It deserves to be marketable,” she says. “At the bookstore, we’re really striving for that.”

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