Courtesy Mary Gibbons
Courtesy Mary Gibbons
Courtesy Mary Gibbons

Entering the Open Books warehouse at 19th and Peoria in Pilsen, you find yourself in the middle of a sea of books. Packed shelves stretch off toward the back wall; dozens of boxes of books lie waiting in corners for sorting or delivery. It’s an unassuming, no-frills sort of place.

This particular bookstore is the latest project of Open Books, a nonprofit whose efforts promote literacy in “Chicago and beyond,” as their mission statement puts it. The organization runs several programs for students young and old, helping them develop reading and writing skills and cultivate a love for diving into a good book.

The organization finances its work in ways that contribute to its mission. Open Books collects donations of used books and then sells a portion of these donations, using the proceeds to support its programs. The other books are given away for free through some of those initiatives. Since it began as a single store in River North, the enterprise has expanded to include a booming online business and, in the last couple of months, a warehouse bookstore.

But the Pilsen warehouse—Open Books’s third and largest location—is home to far more than just the new store. Not only does it house the group’s online inventory, accept donations, and operate a donation pick-up service, but for the last six months, it has also hosted the work of Book Worm Angels, Open Books’ book-grant program. Book Worm Angels primarily donates books to schools, but it also works with other groups that request books, such as the Cook County Department of Corrections and homeless shelters.

Open Books likes to take a hands-on approach with their programs: Open Books Buddies pairs elementary school students with a one-on-one mentor to work on reading together twice a week, while the Adventures in Creative Writing field trips have third- to twelfth-grade classes visit Open Books’ literacy center for prose, poetry, slam poetry, or even college writing workshops. In these workshops students have the chance to work with writing coaches, share their work with their classmates, and receive a published anthology of their work a few weeks later.

Book Director Aaron Lippelt says that although there are plans to expand the program’s size, the focus is on quality before quantity. “There are a lot of programs that give books away haphazardly,” he said. “We sort the books for age-appropriateness and make sure that what they’re getting is really high quality. We want to get them really interested in reading.”

The new store was conceived of as a service as much as a retail venture. Both Lippelt and a coworker (each married to teachers) had heard their spouses discuss the difficulty of buying children’s books for their classes, since new children’s books are often very expensive. Lippelt saw an opportunity. The books in the warehouse store are priced as low as possible, making the books accessible to all and allowing teachers to build up their classroom libraries.

Furthermore, the warehouse allows the nonprofit to distribute even more books. “We try to use all the books we get, deciding whether they should go to a program, retail sale, et cetera, and we try to get the most out of every book,” Lippelt explained. “Before we might have had a ton of kid’s books sitting around in the warehouse waiting for a big sale, since we’re at our current capacity for giving away books.” This way, he said, books like those could more easily get into the right hands.

All of these programs are staffed largely by volunteers—hundreds work regularly—made up of “college students, retirees, and everything in between,” as Christina Brown, Book Coordinator, put it. The warehouse in Pilsen has drawn many new volunteers to the organization and seems likely to help introduce it to many more.

Open Books Warehouse, 905 W. 19th St. Wednesday-Saturday, 10am-4pm. (312)243-9776.

This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 5, 2014

Due to an editing error, the subtitle of an earlier version of this story said that Open Books had opened a new warehouse in Pilsen. The warehouse was already open; only the bookstore is new.

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