November 21, 2011

About Value – Why It Makes Sense to Give Books To People Who Have Nothing

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 11:28 pm

At our last meeting, the members of the St. Louis Independent Bookstore Alliance batted around Holiday ideas.  We wanted to do something that would highlight the spirit of community and support that we’ve worked so hard over the past year to foster.  One idea was a city-wide open house.  One person suggested a holiday decorating contest.  In the end, we decided to do what we do best – sell books.  The idea for a book drive didn’t take much thought.  Recommending books to people is in our DNA.  We came up with the name Hope for the Holidays.

As it turns out, the problem wasn’t that we wanted to do a book drive.  The problem was to whom we wanted to give the books – the residents of Gateway180 Homeless Shelter.

I’ll admit it was my idea to donate the books to a homeless shelter, although the idea isn’t new.  My store has given lots of books to St. Patrick Center – mostly used books and the advanced readers that accumulate in our office.  Our idea was to sell the books to customers who would donate the books to the center.  This idea also is not new.  Every year my store does an Angel Tree Book Drive that is essentially the same thing, except on a smaller scale (one store) and different cause (St. Louis Public School kids).  Each school year, my store raises money for the River City Readers (again, public school, one store).

Yet, when Jane Henderson of the St. Louis Post Dispatch wrote a blog post about our drive, the comments it got were stunning.

This from “Dave 1965”: This is a crock! Why not have a used book drive instead? I’m sure that a homeless person would rather have the money that the book costs, than the book. These money grubbing stores should be boycotted for this!

and this from “westcountyguy4u”: I don’t have a problem with a book drive for the homeless, however, bookstores sponsoring a book drive by asking you to buy a book and donate it is like Best Buy having a television drive and asking you to buy a T.V. and then donate it. A book drive should be sponsored by a group without a vested interest in the product being donated not bookstores.

and this from “abelbaker”: This does seam a rather self-serving promotion for the bookstores … Perhaps the homeless would prefer using real toilet paper instead of pages from a book?

Usually I don’t read comments on blogs (especially after being called a few choice names on this one) but my friend Wendy of Rose’s Bookhouse was so upset, I had to look

The only thing different about this book drive and the two other drives I mentioned is that these books would be wrapped and delivered to the women and families at the shelter the Wednesday before Christmas at bedtime story time.

You read that right – Bedtime Story Time.

The folks at this particular 110 bed shelter read to the kids every night because, according to Jenn Gauthier-Lyke the Development Director, when families become homeless, the everyday family structure breaks down.  The moms they serve come from abusive relationships and virtually no support network.  They’re freaked out.  Playtime and bedtime stories get lost in the day to day struggle to find a place to rest their and their children’s heads.

After taking a tour of the facility, I was impressed with the amount of work the small staff gets done for so many people.  I could write a whole article on the services they need – people to teach computing skills in their computer lab, someone to teach a journal writing class to the mothers, someone to teach parenting skills, money management skills, and lots of other life skills to these folks who are in need.  But that is beyond my scope and the scope of this post.

What I will address is the stigma that is attached to being homeless.  I will admit that I don’t reach into my pockets for extra change when the panhandlers that work the Central West End approach me for the 5th time that week for money.  I don’t roll down my window at the Interstate off ramp on Kingshighway and hand out dollar bills to the guy with the sign.  Why? If I’m honest, it’s partly because I don’t want to get involved, partly because I’m broke myself most of the time, and partly because I feel like I’m being hustled.  But the biggest reason is because looking into that kind of desperation reminds me that “there but for the grace of god go I.”  Ten years ago, I was sleeping on my sister’s floor with no money, no car, no job and no prospects.  If not for her good graces, I would have been making some of the same hard decisions the women at this shelter have made.

The present day me owns and runs an independent bookstore with my partner – not the most lucrative of endeavors – and has come to know this profession as a vehicle for good social work and social change.  Yes, I have to actually sell books to keep my doors open and my employees paid.  Yes, this book drive will hopefully attract some attention to the indie bookstores in the area as well as the shelter it benefits.

I’ll argue that it’s not “money grubbing” to try to run a sustainable business while using it to do good. People without homes are still people.  They are not their homelessness.  The books we give these folks will give them some dignity.  Isn’t that valuable, too?



  1. Post Dispatch commenters are an angry lot and DO NOT represent the 99% of us that think your idea is awesome. The other 1% can choose not to support the program.

    The blessing from a negative: I now know more about Gateway 180, your efforts and holiday hopefulness.

    Comment by Lisa Hautly — November 22, 2011 @ 1:57 pm | Reply

  2. I love you.

    Comment by kriskleindienst — November 23, 2011 @ 7:04 pm | Reply

  3. Amen. Rock on, Jay. If you think Gateway 180 would be interested, I would love to add some of the “book baskets” I made with Girl Scouts this summer to the donation. They can be personalized by the recipient or Alliance members can get together to decorate them. It’s a fun craft and a great storage solution for books (especially if you don’t own a bookcase).

    Comment by Jennifer — November 23, 2011 @ 9:13 pm | Reply

  4. I think this is wonderful. It is two-fold: helping to keep a bookstore in business and giving the people at the shelter something good to read. Used books only do one of these things…

    Comment by Big Wonderful Press — November 24, 2011 @ 11:00 am | Reply

  5. This is the Best Idea Ever!

    The importance of early childhood reading and the bonding ritual of the bed time story have been well documented.

    A book brings a respite from the harsh world around us.

    It eases the transition from daylight play to essential and restorative night sleep.

    It keeps nightmares at bay and inspires fanciful dreams.

    Comment by Anne-Sophie — November 30, 2011 @ 1:49 pm | Reply

  6. I can tell you for a fact that one of the first things to go is dignity. The first to go is identity.
    I can also tell you that while in a small town shelter in Kentucky, the shelter family ate together each evening. Many families take for granted that time at the table getting to know one another through their stages of life.
    By the time panhandling because an option we had been stripped down to nothing. The more we were abused by others, the harder it was to shake off whatever insult or upturned nose came next.
    The individual with whom I shared a section of bushes is now deceased. He died in his apartment, not on the ground. But when we stood with our sign people gave but they threw the money at me, him and our ratty kitten. It took the face of a child for anyone to notice us. When they did and their hearts condemned them for walking by, they turned around, balled up a quarter in a dollar and threw it to us like throwing scraps to a dog. M
    I’d rather perish than be treated like nothing as a homeless person.

    Comment by Faith-Magdalene — August 22, 2015 @ 7:41 pm | Reply

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