“I’ve always wanted to have a bookstore,” says Travis DiNicola, head of Indy Reads, as he looks around the open space that, by July, will be Indy Reads Books.
Indy Reads is a long-standing nonprofit organization dedicated to helping adults learn to read. The lack of literacy skills among adults is a massive problem in central Indiana.
This means that they are unemployable for most jobs, since you have to be able to read at an eighth grade level to qualify for a GED, the equivalent of a high school diploma.
“Illiteracy is a spectrum in terms of skills,” DiNicola says. “The best information that we have is that approximately 6 to 7 percent of adults 18 and older within central Indiana have no literacy skills whatsoever.”
Indy Reads trains volunteers to tutor adults who come forward to improve their literacy skills. Over the years, Indy Reads has produced a number of programs, from spelling bees to scavenger hunts, in an effort to help people better understand the dimensions of adult illiteracy and to raise the funds needed to address the issue.
Indy Reads Books is the organization’s latest – and most ambitious – venture, one that literally places Indy Reads on the city’s map. It promises to be a full-fledged used bookstore, a shop with a large inventory of books in all categories.
DiNicola believes Indy Reads Books has the potential to accomplish several overlapping goals. The store will not only provide Indy Reads with a visible presence in a desirable location – on Mass Ave, hard by the Cultural Trail - but it will also offer a range of adult and children’s programs, as well as tutoring for adult learners.
DiNicola foresees the shop making a significant contribution to Indy Reads’ revenue stream: “We want to make sure people understand that they’re not just buying a great book at a good price, they’re actually helping to support this organization. We want to use this as an outreach tool.”
But the potential for Indy Reads Books doesn’t stop there. When Borders Books closed its Washington Street store last year, downtown Indianapolis lost its only destination book retailer. DiNicola and Indy Reads Books’s manager, Alex Mattingly, hope the new store will begin to fill this void.
Raising money – and awareness
“A bookstore can be the heart of a community,” DiNicola says. He speaks from experience. When he was in college, and then a grad student, at Penn State University, DiNicola worked at Svoboda’s, an independent bookstore operated by its namesake, Michael Svoboda.
“It was the intellectual core of Penn State when I was there,” DiNicola recalls. Svoboda’s hosted readings, book clubs and a wide range of arts and cultural events.
“He used it as a way to bring people together,” DiNicola says. “That store was a big part of my education and growing up.”
DiNicola was accustomed to seeking out bookstores wherever he traveled. He believes that one measure of a city is the quality of its places to buy books. So, 15 years ago, when he moved to Indianapolis, DiNicola was dismayed to find his new home had the fewest number of bookstores for a city its size in America.
DiNicola says he started percolating the idea of incorporating a bookstore into Indy Reads’ mission almost three years ago. His thinking accelerated when he attended a literacy conference in Chicago and witnessed a presentation by an adult literacy group from Medina, Ohio, who saved their organization by starting a bookstore when their other sources of funding dried up.
“They now have three bookstores and pretty much their entire budget comes from the bookstores,” DiNicola says. “I was really inspired by them.”
Then, in 2010, DiNicola ran into Margot Lacy Eccles at the annual Start With Art luncheon. He shared his idea, which she liked, particularly as it might relate to the new Cultural Trail. Eccles championed the bookstore concept with the Indy Reads board, backing up her enthusiasm with $25,000 in seed money. Her gift was eventually joined by grants from the Efroymson Family Fund, the Glick Fund and Giving Sum, enabling Indy Reads Books to open with backing totaling $150,000.
“The plan,” he says, “has always been to have a bookstore with an inventory that was mainly used and donated books, mainly volunteers (with some paid staff) to keep expenses low, and tie it to a cause: Indy Reads. It’s a way to not just raise money, but raise awareness.”
Like DiNicola, Mattingly, the manager of Indy Reads Books, has the bookseller’s gene in his DNA. A longtime veteran of Half Price Books, Mattingly says, “I immediately lit up,” when he learned Indy Reads was looking for someone to help bring its new store into existence.
“All my interests lie around books and reading and writing,” Mattingly says. “The fact [Indy Reads is] doing this project and that so many people have lined up behind it makes me feel really good about getting involved.”
Mattingly is undeterred by doomsayers who claim literary culture has passed its sell-by date. “I think there are a lot of people out there who still respect the book as an object, something they enjoy holding.”
These folks, Mattingly says, are bound to find plenty to interest them at a used bookstore. “You’re going to find things you never knew existed. Sometimes they’ll be funny or bizarre. Other times you’ll start reading the first page and think: ‘I’ve got to buy this.’ That moment of discovery in a used bookstore is so much sharper because you can’t order it. It’s flavored by the community. So much of what we have in stock reflects not just what we think is interesting, it reflects what the collective community of Indianapolis is reading – or has read – going back generations.”
Mattingly sees himself as a kind of curator. “Even if a book isn’t in the greatest shape, if it’s something unusual, or an older book I haven’t seen before, I want to make sure it gets a chance on the shelf.”
Over the past six months, Indy Reads Books has been picking up donations of thousands of used books from an array of sources. One contributor brought in a massive collection of books about Kennedy family lore.
The shop will also offer a choice selection of new titles – “pretty much what you would expect to find at a newsstand at an airport,” according to DiNicola.
The store, which is being designed by Nikki Sutton, will also feature a stage for intimate public programs, with seating for up to 35, and a children’s area.
“We want people with families and kids to feel this is a place they can come on a Saturday afternoon and spend time,” Mattingly says.
Children’s books will be priced at $1. “We want to make it as easy as possible to get books into the hands of kids,” he says.
$20,000 per year
In addition to functioning as a shop and a community destination, Indy Reads Books will also support and make visible the literacy organization’s mission to provide tutoring for adults who read at or below a sixth grade level.
DiNicola says the new store, “is promoting literacy, not just on Mass Ave, but throughout the city. This is going to give Indy Reads a presence to reach people who may not know about us otherwise.”
Spreading the word requires some urgency. Indy Reads is expanding its services into Boone County and has a surplus of students who are anxious to qualify for GED classes. The organization anticipates that it will need 250 new volunteers by the end of the summer and as many as 500 by the end of the year. “The bookstore is going to be one of our recruiting tools,” DiNicola says.
Adults who are unable to read effectively are far more likely to be candidates for public assistance programs. They are a predominant group in the criminal justice system. And they tend to have a greater need for health care than their functionally literate fellow citizens. In all, DiNicola estimates that every illiterate adult costs taxpayers about $20,000 per year.
“One of the easiest ways to improve health care costs in this country would be to improve literacy rates,” he says. “We hear stories all the time of students calling because they have a prescription they can’t read.”
DiNicola urges people who take their reading skills for granted to try and imagine what life would be like without them. “Not being able to read a newspaper. Not able to fill out a job application. We see a lot of students who have dropped out of high school.”
Because they’re unable to decipher written clues on their own, those without functional literacy often have to wait for someone else to tell them what to do. When the frustration builds to a certain point, Indy Reads needs volunteers to step in with instruction that can make a difference.
“We see students in their 20s and 30s that, whether because of the GED or because they lost a job when their boss found out they couldn’t read, some trigger happens,” DiNicola says. “Maybe they were relying on a friend or neighbor to do their banking for them and they got ripped off – we hear about that quite frequently.”
“What’s really important to remember,” he says, “is these adults have made the really hard decision to admit they have a problem with reading. They want help, and they come to us. They’re looking for the same tools the rest of us already have.”
DiNicola says he has occasionally eavesdropped on adults and tutors working together on reading a passage. “You hear how much struggle and effort goes into it but then, when you hear success, it can be really moving.”
It’s got to be cool
Located in an 1800′s-era building at the east end of Mass Ave, across from the Black Market restaurant, Indy Reads Books is about to take its place in a burgeoning neighborhood that is being fueled by the Cultural Trail and will soon see the completion of a major new residential development.
“There’s a ton of traffic down here now that didn’t exist even six months ago,” DiNicola says.
The store is also on the edge of the 46201 zip code, one of three zips where most of Indy Reads’s students typically reside. DiNicola points to the store’s access to bus lines, the township trustees’ office and its relatively close proximity to the jail – geographic factors that might not fit into a typical bookstore’s business plan, but that speak to Indy Reads Books’s larger mission. “This is a really important area for us to be connected to.”
In time, the store hopes to serve as a place where students can gain the retail training necessary to enable them to find the gainful employment their lack of literacy skills has so far denied them.
In the meantime, DiNicola wants to make sure Indy Reads Books succeeds as the kind of shopping destination that has always been close to his heart: a good place to browse among and buy books.
“Bookstores can be a place where people get together to accidentally discover each other, discover knowledge,” he says. “We don’t rely on people’s pity to shop here. It’s got to be cool.”
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