Q&A with Eric Johnson of Open Books
Back when I considered starting this newsletter, I knew that I wanted to link to Bookshop.org for all the books discussed and that I would give any affiliate income generated by those purchases to a charity. My Tribune editor at the time suggested Open Books, and when I saw what they were up to, I knew that this was a perfect fit.
I’ve long wanted to provide readers with more information about Open Books, so they have a better appreciation for where that affiliate income generated by their purchases goes.
Eric Johnson, the executive director of Open Books was kind enough to answer my questions.
John Warner: We should start with a little background about Open Books, how long it’s been around, its mission, its impact.
Eric Johnson: Open Books was founded in 2006 to transform lives through reading, writing, and the unlimited power of books. We began out of the home of our founder, Stacy Ratner, who began collecting used books to recapitalize them, to put them back into play with a purpose. Open Books’ first bookstore and community space opened in the River North neighborhood in 2009 to welcome children and families for innovative reading and writing programs and, of course, affordable access to books. We’ve since expanded to two physical locations - the River North location having moved to the West Loop, and our second store and warehouse in Pilsen. We have since engaged over 50,000 children, ages birth to 12th grade, in our reading and writing programs and impacted tens of thousands more through book grants, for which we have four different service lines now, including our “classic” book grants and Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.
If there is a silver lining to it, the COVID-19 pandemic presented an opportunity for us to think differently about our work. We have moved to concentrate our efforts in neighborhoods, beginning on the West Side in North Lawndale and gradually expanding to adjacent neighborhoods. By flooding discrete zones, we can more readily engage parents and other caregivers and weave their voices into what we do and how they want their children engaged. We’re using additional physical spaces - temporary ones, like pop-up stores, and long-term ones in new permanent stores - to bring Open Books to more people where they are.
JW: Tell me something, (anything) about what you’ve noticed about young people and books and reading through your work. What do you want other people to know about a child’s relationship to books?
EJ: We could spend a long time on the relationship between children and books. The body of research here is vast and covers academics, social-emotional learning, long-term health, and many other areas. Rudine Sims Bishop, the “mother” of multicultural children's literature, pioneered the concepts of mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors, which are consistently on our minds. Particularly for children, books can provide glimpses into other worlds (windows), can give them the opportunity to walk into those worlds (sliding glass doors), and reflect their own lived experiences (mirrors).
Authors and characters of color increasingly represent a larger portion of the book ecosystem which, in turn, will provide more and more mirrors for marginalized communities who have lacked access to meaningful chances at literacy and an authentic love of reading. To complement the books donated to us, Open Books is actively finding new ways to put titles featuring characters of color into children’s homes and classrooms. There is no greater joy to see than when Black and Latinx children see someone like them reflect from the pages and are inspired to read more.
JW: The newest initiative, which will continue through September is a pop-up shop that functions as a “pay what you want” bookstore. You have to explain this to me. Where is it? What kind of books are we talking about? Who are these books for? Can I really pay whatever I want? Let’s say I want to exchange delicious lemon bars for books, is that cool?
EJ: [Laughs]. I hope our team would encourage people to keep and enjoy their lemon bars! Whatever you want, via Venmo or PayPal.
The pop-up shop is an extension of the pay-what-you-want model we piloted at our Pilsen store last fall. During that pilot we tested what it would look like to make all children’s books free, which we had already done for teachers, and to have grown-ups name their price for adult titles. One person may buy 5 books for $5, another person may buy 2 books for $12. Others may add a donation to Open Books to their purchase. It’s meant to meet people where they are to further a culture of reading, especially at home. We have extended this model to North Lawndale, and the books are for anyone and everyone, though our first focus is the families in the neighborhood. North Lawndale is a predominantly Black community so, in the spirit of more mirrors, we are curating an ongoing, diverse selection that includes many Black authors and Black experiences.
The pop-up shop is located in the Lawndale Pop-Up Spot, which my colleague, Chelsea Ridley, co-founded prior to joining the Open Books team. The Lawndale Pop-Up Spot, located at at the intersection of Douglas Boulevard and Central Park Avenue in Lawndale, is a shipping container of rotating content which Chelsea has repurposed for this project. It will be open throughout September and into October on Friday, Saturday, and Monday afternoons.
JW: What are the goals for the pop-up shop? How will you know if you’ve had success?
EJ: The pop-up shop at the Lawndale Pop-Up Spot is just one, small step in a larger initiative in North Lawndale. This past year we launched North Lawndale Reads, a multi-strategy campaign to promote and support literacy among families with the youngest of children in the neighborhood. Our goal is for a greater number of children to read early and be prepared for Kindergarten and grade-level reading. Parents and other caregivers are the first line of offense here, so we want to support them as best as we can, using book access (think books in unusual places, such as small business or parks and, ahem, shipping containers), literacy programs, community events, social media, and other levers.
We will, of course, track the number of books we sell at the pop-up shop and what people have chosen to pay, but the shop’s success is part of a larger, neighborhood-based narrative we are writing. Anecdotally, the positive responses we have already received from residents and our partners in North Lawndale illustrate an important proof point.
JW: Could we see a repeat of this in the future?
Without question. In fact, this pop-up shop is unique relative to other pop-up efforts Open Books has introduced this year. Since the spring we have hosted nearly 20 one-day, outdoor bookstores at small businesses, friends of ours, from coffee shops to food markets, throughout Chicago. The pop-up in North Lawndale will be open for a month, and our hope is that it will be a precursor to a permanent Open Books bookstore and community space in the neighborhood. We are in early discussions with local leaders about that project - stay tuned.
JW: Are there any other interesting and creative things that Open Books is cooking up that you can tell us about?
EJ: I encourage everyone to check out our Gift of Books and Open Books|Open Minds book granting programs. Both programs give donors opportunities to buy-to-grant new books for children of all ages and feature Open Books-curated titles that include Black and Latinx characters and stories and Spanish text. Both programs are on our website.
In the meantime, we are just months away from our third bricks-and-mortar location, this time in the Logan Square neighborhood. In addition to our stores in the West Loop and Pilsen, Chicagoans and visitors can buy and donate books will soon be able to support Open Books in three different, physical places. Come visit us!
My column this week describes how and why I’m reading Lauren Groff’s stunning new novel, Matrix, very, very slowly.
Writing at The Atlantic, Ian Bogost offers a provocation, calling e-books an “abomination.” It’s a more nuanced article than the title suggests, an interesting exploration of how the ways we read intersect with our desired formats.
About 1/4 of adult Americans read zero books in a year. The main cause is not lack of desire, necessarily, but lack of resources and access to books, the exactly kind of thing that Open Books tries to prevent for young people.
At Book Riot, Laura Sackton explores what makes for a series that can make it past the 10-book mark.
Bethanne Patrick explores some of what makes Laurie Colwin’s writing so comforting and compelling. I’ve got a special Bookshop.org store with Colwin’s reissues all in one handy spot.
All links to books on these posts go to The Biblioracle Recommends bookshop at Bookshop.org. Affiliate income for purchases through the bookshop goes to Open Books in Chicago. Unchanged at $157.55 this week, but I’m thinking this is a matter of accounting logistics at Bookshop, rather than the fact that no one purchased anything. In honor of Eric Johnson’s appearance at The Biblioracle Recommends, let’s get a big bump for next week!
If you’d like to see every book I’ve recommended in this space this year, check out my list of 2021 Recommendations at the Bookshop.org bookshop.
As always, recommendations are open for business. Wait times are minimal.
1. Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey
2. The Boyfriend by Thomas Perry
3. The Decameron by Boccaccio
4. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
5. Act One by Moss Hart
Chris T. - Chicago, IL
An interesting and varied list where you can see how these books braid together, but it’s also hard to nail down a specific title for recommendation. That said, they don’t call me The Biblioracle for nothing: Lexicon by Max Barry.
I hope everyone enjoys the final days of summer and is well-stocked for the onslaught of fall reading.