Bookstore Volunteers Help Promote Literacy

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There’s more than one way to tap into customer loyalty and book love. A number of bookstores have expanded their literacy programs and events calendar via the generosity of volunteers. In celebration of National Volunteer Week, which runs from April 10 - 16, booksellers from Indigo Bridge Books and Open Books talk about the logistics of working with a team of community members happy to donate their time. 

Kim Coleman was inspired by Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia program when she decided to launch an extensive volunteer program at Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln, Nebraska. Coleman and her husband, Bob, opened Indigo Bridge with the vision of providing a community resource. They searched for a neighborhood where people from many backgrounds could come together and found it in Lincoln. “We became one of the USA’s primary relocation sites for refugees and immigrants about 10 years ago,” said Indigo Bridge Outreach Coordinator Marj McKinty.

The bookstore’s outreach efforts are based upon community needs and the interests of its volunteers. The majority aim to promote literacy and bring community members together.

Programs include a Spanish storytime, held every Saturday morning. “Since I don’t speak Spanish, I rely on volunteers to help read and then idiomatically translate the stories to the children,” said McKinty. “In addition, they help choose books appropriate to the age and interest of the kids who come.”

Several of the volunteers who help with storytime study Spanish at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln or the local high school. Others are bilingual moms who are teaching their children both languages and who sometimes bring them to the bookstore. “By bringing their children, they have brought native speakers into our midst, so we now have children teaching other children,” said McKinty. “Some of the scenes we see are very sweet!”

Indigo Bridge hosts a free lunch program every weekday with soup and bread provided by a local church. People are invited to eat for free, make a donation, or offer to volunteer. “Ordinarily we serve between 35 and 50 people each day till supplies vanish,” said McKinty. “And they usually do! People join together at the table (a few display tables set up mid-store with chairs) to eat, talk, and enjoy one another’s company as they desire.”

The store actively recruits volunteers from the local Arts and Humanities High School and other local high schools where students need to fulfill community involvement requirements; from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Nebraska Wesleyan, and Union College; and from various fraternal organizations that are interested in literary and literacy-based efforts. McKinty meets with groups and describes the emerging community’s needs, along with how people can help meet those needs as a volunteer.

She occasionally brings university and high school students to help with public school events. “Their youth and enthusiasm add a lot to the kids’ experience,” McKinty said. “We assist area community learning centers with after-school literacy activities.”

The store’s 40 volunteers work anywhere from one or two hours a month to eight to 10 hours a week. “Some drop out for months at a time and resurface when the semester’s challenges abate!” McKinty said. “You can almost always tell when it’s midterm or if a kid is taking a really demanding class that semester!”

Most volunteers at Indigo Bridge don’t do it for any sort of compensation. “The majority find their reward, they tell me, in working with the children and adults,” she said. But McKinty tries to match volunteers’ interests with the store’s needs and has hosted appreciation parties for them.

“Like all volunteer programs, ours holds both great rewards and some challenges,” she said. “I have worked with volunteers for 25 years and still find it the most difficult part of any job! But I think it’s crucial that you know exactly what you need people to do; have well-crafted job descriptions that go further than the traditional use of volunteers (i.e., stuffing envelopes or reorganizing storage shelves); and match people’s most burning interest with a need that they can fulfill. Then you have a recipe for success!”

Open Books, a Chicago-based501(c)(3) nonprofit organization providing community programs, has mobilized thousands of volunteers to promote literacy. Open Books opened in 2006, and Open Books store, which was part of the organization’s vision from the outset, opened in 2009.

The organization has a volunteer network of 3,000, with about 500 active volunteers at any one time. Currently, 70 volunteers are on the bookstore schedule, with about 15 more signed up for bookstore orientation. “At the intersection of being a serious book lover and feeling extremely passionate about the literacy cause live some really wonderful people, and it is these people who make the daily operation of the Open Books store not only possible, but very successful,” said Volunteer Manager Ava Zeligson.

“We maintain a flexible schedule for volunteers, which is a huge part of why we can engage so many people. Typically, a volunteer will spend about 10 hours a month at the store.”

Volunteers provide one-on-one weekly reading support at 12 schools around the city through Open Books Buddies; serve as coaches during creative nonfiction writing workshops for 4th - 12th  graders taking part inAdventures in Creative Writing Field Trips; mentor high school juniors in the VWrite program; and sort, scan, and shelve the thousands of books received each month at the bookstore.

Open Books’ army of volunteers was built via a grassroots effort, which included distributing fliers and setting up tables at events. “At this point, however, we are lucky enough to meet a lot of new volunteers who find out about us either by word-of-mouth or through the bookstore,” said Zeligson. “The store itself has added a new level of visibility, both for the literacy cause and for Open Books, which was always the intention.” Open Books also links to a volunteer sign-up form and program options on its website. 

Open Books has a robust appreciation program in place for volunteers, including volunteer discounts at the bookstore and first dibs on used books. “Our books are priced very reasonably, and all of the money goes to support our literacy programs, so having the chance to claim any recent donations before they hit the shelves is quite a perk itself,” said Zeligson.

Creatively capitalizing on bibliophilia can have unexpected rewards. “By embracing people’s passion for books, it is really amazing the capacity you can add to your operation, not to mention the community you can build around it,” said Zeligson. “With that said, since these are not actual employees, it is doubly important to make sure the experience stays fun and positive, and that in one way or another, volunteers are getting something back.”

Another note of caution, she added: A lot of people “hold very romantic notions of bookstores.” Many will be happy to have a closer relationship with their favorite bookstore. “However, for some, the illusion is shattered when they realize what a big role say, shelving, plays in the day-to-day of a bookstore, and you can’t take it personally when those people phase back to just being customers.”

Open Books has been happy to work with so many committed, enthusiastic Chicagoans through its volunteer program, said Zeligson. “As volunteer manager, it is the joy of my day to sit back and think of all of the amazing people who have helped us get to this point, and who will continue to support us as we grow, serving more and more students, and selling more and more books. The community that forms among your volunteers will be one of the most powerful tools you can ask for.”

Does your bookstore have an active volunteer program? Please let us know.