Friday, September 11, 2009

Used Books, Innovation and Some Passion: A Model of Success

Open Books
Stacy Ratner, Founder and Executive Director
Becca Keaty, Director of Marketing and PR
213 West Institute Place
Chicago, IL 60610

Three years ago, Stacy Ratner and Becca Keaty met at Starbucks to discuss opening a used book store in Chicago. As they wrote down their ideas on paper napkins, they began outlining what would later become Open Books. This innovative and exciting nonprofit social venture utilizes proceeds from the sales of used books to fund engaging and compelling literacy programs for children and adults. And in the three short years since the organization was created, Open Books has collected 250,000 books, 2400 volunteers and donors, over 40 pages of testimonials on their website from schools, partners, volunteers and participants and is about to open a one-of-a-kind two story used book store. (Tentative Grand Opening events November 21-22, 2009.)

I met with Becca, currently Director of Marketing and PR, in the Open Books loft office space at 213 West Institute Place, just down the street from their soon to open new location. As I exited the elevator on the third floor, I immediately saw a rack of books and the instantly recognizable Open Books logo on the opposite wall. Although the office was around the corner, this display made it clear that I was on the right floor. As Becca greeted me, I noticed the entire space was overflowing with books, people, colorful and enticing furniture, and what I later learned was disarray from the morning’s 8th grade field trip. Becca spent the next few minutes providing me with a tour in which she pointed out the wall of floor to ceiling boxes of books headed for storage and the large bins of books yet to be sorted. Open Books will take virtually any used book as long as it is not in complete disrepair. (Please refrain from donating books that are moldy or have been urinated on or received other “gifts” from your children and pets as the odor remains long afterwards. I include this caveat because, difficult as it may be to believe, some folks have donated books in extremely questionable condition.)

We then walked to the back of the loft, where the architectural plans for the new location were proudly posted for everyone to see. Becca explained that the plans included two floors. The first floor would be a used book store with special children’s areas, a stage and lots of cozy reading spots for children and adults. The second floor was called The Literacy Center and would contain offices, space for programming with intriguing names such as “The Room of a Thousand Words” and “Slam Studio” as well as mobile computers, a publishing center and a large area for interns. This last area is clearly a wise investment as they currently have 10 interns on staff. Although Open Books has been selling used books through its website, the opening of the store will provide a new avenue for sales with a display of 40,000 books. Additionally, the expanded space will allow for concurrent classes, activities or community events throughout the day. Shoppers in the store will be connected to the mission of the organization by reading signs throughout the store that describe how proceeds from sales will benefit programming.

During the next 45 minutes of our conversation, I was inspired as I learned about the visionary choices the young entrepreneurs made as they created Open Books. These choices early on, led to the organization’s quick and ongoing success. Utilizing skills from business, marketing and web design backgrounds as well as skills learned while in the for profit world, team members built a solid foundation for Open Books from the very beginning. Many nonprofit social ventures are created by people without the requisite skills and the organizations do not last very long. However, Open Books continues to experience exponential growth and expansion.

Open Books has four pilot programs, each of which is dependent upon volunteers. Before signing up to as a volunteer, participation in a one hour training session is required. These training sessions are offered on the first and third Wednesdays of every month, some from 12:00-1:00 pm and others from 6:00 – 7:00 pm. RSVP in advance is required.

1. Open Books Buddies pairs adult volunteers with Chicagoland elementary school students for once a week reading. According to the website, “Adults listen enthusiastically as students read aloud, take turns reading when a child has her heart set on a tough book, show ways to figure out unknown words, and model expressive reading. (Silly or dramatic voices are highly encouraged!)”

2. Adventures in Creative Writing are two hour field trips to Open Books as stated on the website, “…designed to help young people develop their writing skills in meaningful and creative ways…students write and read as a whole group, in small groups, and as individuals, working with our friendly, supportive writing coaches. They read sample work aloud, discuss it as a group, and write their own prose or poetry.”

3. VWrite is described on the website as an “…8-week program that matches teens with caring, professional adult mentors who coach students, one-on-one, in college and career communication. The V in VWrite stands for ‘virtual,’ so mentors and students primarily communicate via phone and e-mail…Topics include resume, cover letter, goal-setting, e-mail and phone etiquette, job shadowing, interviews, the college search and application process, and more.”

4. WeWrite is a series of evening writing workshops for adults. The website describes the program by stating, “One set of sessions will focus on creative writing topics such as memoir, poetry, and journaling.” The website adds that, “Other sessions will focus on career-related writing skills such as resumes, cover letters, and filling out online job applications, and will include writing, editing, and computer work.”

Additionally, the organization occasionally needs volunteers to help with Open Books events, office tasks, and book pick up and sorting.

Open Books is writing its own story of success in the world of nonprofit social ventures. The organization is run by imaginative and creative staff who understand how to set goals and achieve them and how to build an organization with the ability to easily grow and expand. They have an extraordinarily large group of interns and volunteers who are thrilled to be a part of the organization and have created a model of collaboration in the nonprofit world. I have already committed to volunteering for the organization on a regular basis and hope that I have inspired you to do the same.

Please note:
If you are interested in potential sponsorship opportunities, beginning at $50.00, (including major sponsorship of portions of the soon to open new facility) please look on the website in the donations section.