Last November I became one of 3,000 volunteers for Open Books, Chicago’s first nonprofit literacy bookstore and community center promoting literacy in Chicago and beyond since 2006.
On the day of my volunteer orientation, I arrived 20 minutes early to explore the award-winning bookstore that collects and sells used books to help fund the literacy programs for 4,000 students each year. The nonprofit’s magic statement exclaims, “Open Books enriches lives through reading, writing, and the ______ power of used books,” believing that the power of used books has a unique meaning for every individual, and thus allowing for an infinite possibilities of words to fill in the blank (including “fantastic”, “limitless” and our feature’s favorite word, “awesome”.)
At the front door, volunteers sorting these freshly donated “powerful” books in brown paper bags warmly invited me into a rainbow-hued store with a stock of 50,000 used books awaiting their future owners. A colorful, literary wonderland, I was most impressed by the common reading area with a red armchair reminiscent of the one belonging to Wishbone.
Later, upstairs in an Open Books classroom painted yellow like a number 2 pencil, where in the months to come I’d serve as a writing coach, I learned about the non-profit’s history and impact. Open Books offers so many on-going literacy programs that I could get involved with, including: one-on-one reading with elementary school students, one-on-one “virtual” mentoring for high school juniors regarding college and career, and nonfiction field trip writing workshops for 3rd – 12th graders. Often students come to field trips and “write stories about themselves that they’ve never shared with their classmates before.” It’s an amazing moment of pride and personal expression. In addition, Open Books not only operates the full-time bookstore onsite, but also a strong e-commerce online, while putting on several community events a month.
The orientation ended with final remarks from the person that made this all possible. I first noticed her distinctive poise and well-spoken manner and then her awesome blue bangs. I’m talking about Stacy Ratner, the founder and executive director of Open Books.
As a lifelong reader and writer, no matter what Stacy’s current venture had been, reading had always been the most important aspect of her life since she first learned at the age of three. She graduated with degrees in literature and law from Brandeis University and Boston College Law School. After college, she spent a decade as a “serial” entrepreneur in key roles at for profit startups Snapdragon Technologies, Wired Business, Ionospeed, Driveitaway, and Sittercity, creating a combined total of $30 million in venture funding, receiving honors, including PhillyTech’s Thirty Under 30 award. (She’s a guest writer for the Incwell, NBCChicago’s business blog.)
Upon turning 35, she re-evaluated her goals and decided that she wanted to start something new, and this time it should be a “nonprofit and a cause [she] would want to spend the rest of her life working on, and so literacy seemed like an obvious fit, because reading had been such a joy in [her] life.” After researching the issue of literacy in Chicago, she was shocked by how ignorant she had been about the seriousness of the problem. Most people do not realize that 53% of adults in Chicago have low or limited literacy skills. (Think about what that means: 53% of people in Chicago can’t read this post or this post. How frustrating would your life be if you couldn’t read HelloGiggles every day, let alone the bus schedule, your phone bill or the ingredients list on the back of a package in the grocery store.) For this reason, an important part of Open Books’ mission, in addition to promoting literacy, is also to “educate people about the causes of illiteracy, and help them learn how they can get involved.”
In the last five years, Open Books has grown into an important Chicago institute, fulfilling its intended mission. Starting out in Stacy’s basement in the spirit of most start-ups and moving to its River North location in 2007, Open Books will continue to expand. Stacy promises that in another five years, it will still be in Chicago, with a goal of reaching an increasing number of students and adding many more creative literacy programs that they currently don’t offer. The idea machine at Open Books constantly turns as new programs get tested and perfected.
Stacy does not have to do much to motivate the 11 full-time staff members at the offices of Open Books, because “they’re already motivated and passionate about what they do.” Every member has been a previous volunteer or intern who are very enthusiastic and have already invested in the cause well beyond their employment. It is very important to Stacy to maintain a collaborative office environment, because she says, “Every great thing we’ve ever done, it has taken more than one person to do it.” Stacy shows endless appreciation for her staff and volunteers. “None of our programs would be possible without our volunteers,” I’ve heard her say many times.
As a volunteer, I have had firsthand experience with Open Books and its impacts on students and the community. It takes a strong, visionary community member to create such an ambitious, multifaceted nonprofit with such an urgent mission. The Open Books/Stacy Ratner story is a unique one about entrepreneurship, literacy promotion and community leadership that can inspire anyone to not only do what you love, but to turn a lifelong love into a valuable cause worth doing for a lifetime. To this next generation of young women with ideas and the entrepreneurial spirit, Stacy says to you, “There has never been a better time to start something, because the world has never needed you more… If you have a fantastic idea and you have the love surrounding it, you will never be sorry you tried.”
Come visit Open Books the next time you visit Chicago and if you’re already here, find out more about how you can get involved!
Women Working to Do Good is a series that Hello Giggles and the White House have been collaborating on. We will bring you stories of women in communities across the United States who we think are stars in their own right. Whether they are young entrepreneurs, active community organizers, or making a difference in a single life or community, we think these women are amazing and want to share their stories with you! Each story will also be featured on the White House blog, and we are working together to bring more strong female role models to the forefront.
If there is a woman in your community who you think should be honored in this series, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Images provided by Open Books and Stacy Ratner