If you could only have one more job in your working life, what would you choose to do?
Stacy Ratner asked herself that in 2006 when facing “a significant birthday” and after years of nurturing successful, for-profit startups, including SitterCity.
Ratner answered the question by creating Open Books, an innovative social venture that offers literacy programs for thousands of K-12 students in Chicago.
Unlike other non-profits that rely on grants or corporate gifts, Open Books funds its operations primarily through used book sales from its retail store in the heart of downtown Chicago. The store’s colorful shelves are lined with over 50,000 donated books, including 10,000 or so children’s books.
With no previous bookselling experience to draw on, the launch of the store was an adventure for Ratner. But she always saw it as a critical element of her plan to tackle what she calls the ‘invisible problem’ of literacy.
“It funds our programs but it’s also an awareness venue,” says Ratner. “If someone comes in to buy a book, or attend an author reading, or host a book club, they might also leave with some awareness that literacy is still a problem in Chicago, and maybe even better, a determination that they can get involved and do something about it.”
Now in its eighth year, Open Books partners with over 60 Chicago Public Schools offering programs that range from one-on-one reading to creative writing workshops. While literacy is still a large problem in the city, Ratner says the daily accomplishments of her programs’ students offer a powerful antidote to despair.
“It could be that a child gets a book that he or she has been wanting for weeks. It could be that they figure out a word that they didn’t know. It could be that they read a poem in front of their class and now their class is kind of admiring them. Every day, in every program that we offer, something wonderful happens.”
(Photo credits: Paul Natkin and Richard W. Chapman)