Open Books works to turn page on illiteracy in Chicago
Just a few streets away from UIC’s east campus, thousands of books lie in a cozy warehouse. Rummage around and you may find a gently used photographic spread of Chicago, a book club novel or a volume from the Harry Potter series.
“We always have multiple copies of all the Harry Potter books, which makes me sad because I don’t know who would give up their Harry Potter books,” said Nell Klugman, the volunteer coordinator for Open Books. “But I love that we always have them for new people.”
The warehouse belongs to Open Books, a nonprofit literacy organization founded in 2006 for kids in grades 1 through 12. Its mission is to promote literacy, reading and writing in Chicago.
“And to promote the power of used books,” Klugman said.
Open Books accepts both monetary donations and gently used books of any genre. Once sorted, the books are sold online and at either of their locations: River North, 213 W. Institute Place, and Pilsen, 905 W. 19th St.
“Students can even donate their textbooks,” Klugman said. “But we’re always in need of children’s books.”
Funds are used for Open Books literacy programs, offered during the school year and summer. Programs vary and depend on the age group. For younger students, there’s one-on-one reading time with a volunteer. Creative writing and publishing workshops are offered to teenagers.
The organization functions with help from volunteers. “I can’t stress enough how important volunteers are to all of our programs working with kids, and to both of our book stores,” Klugman said.
Volunteers, who must be 18 years old, are accepted year-round, and responsibilities range from helping in the bookstore to working with kids in the literacy programs.
The average Chicago Public School student reads below grade-level, but they’re not the only ones, Klugman said. She has noticed that many Chicago adults have lower literacy skills, too. According to the last survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2003 an estimated 19 percent of Cook County residents 16 and older lack basic literacy skills. In 1992, that number was 22 percent.
“It’s absolutely necessary that we work to get students reading at grade-level now, but also be transforming that generation,” Klugman said. “So that as adults, their ability to read and write is not in question.”
That’s the Open Books mission.
“A lot of what we’re doing is to make access to books, owning books and reading time more universal,” Klugman said. “No matter how hard teachers try, class sizes are so big that the kids who are struggling can’t get the individualized attention that they need in order to bring them up to a better place.”
While this isn’t a problem unique to Chicago, “it’s a problem that’s exacerbated by a lot of the struggles that Chicago public schools have been going through in recent years,” Klugman said.
River North has a larger number of books to select from, including rare finds. The Pilsen bookstore is like an “outlet mall.”
“It’s the place you come to if you want a lot of deals,” said Dominic Loise, book associate for Open Books. Prices start at $1 a book at the Pilsen bookstore.
Chicago schools can sign up for the organization’s Book Grant program, which offers classroom lending libraries, children’s book grants and reading resource materials.
To donate books, drop by either of the Open Books locations. If you have more than two boxes, schedule a pick up.