Independent Bookstore in Upstate New York Opens Door to Work With Nonprofits

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    Walk into a bookstore like The Open Door in Schenectady, New York, and there are hundreds of colorful and captivating books for children.

    But in the surrounding city, where the school district considers 80 percent of the children economically disadvantaged, access to books and the reading skills crucial to enjoying them are less plentiful.

    That’s what inspired Amy Lane, Open Door’s general manager, to visit a recruitment event for a local nonprofit that dispatches volunteer reading teachers to city schools. She wasn’t able to volunteer herself because of her work schedule, but when the founder of the Reading Is Fun Program walked through her doors a few months later, Lane had a bigger idea.

    Partnering with local nonprofits had been a goal for Lane and store owner Janet Hutchison for some time. The current vision is to adopt an organization for a two-month period in which the store shares information about the group’s mission with customers, holds events, and encourage donations; the Reading Is Fun Program seemed like an ideal choice for the maiden effort, Lane said.

    “They are a wonderful volunteer literacy organization that goes into schools in Schenectady. They tutor in kindergarten through grade two, kids who are ages four to eight, in reading. They are doing a lot of good,” Lane said.

    From now through November, Lane and her staff will talk to customers about the program and pass out brochures to likely volunteers. She also plans to pick a weekend to hold an event and will donate a portion of sales to the program.

    “A lot of our customers are retired teachers, and that’s exactly who fits that profile really well,” Lane said.

    Reading Is Fun Program founder Al Magid and Amy Lane, Open Door’s general manager, are partnering to help children in Schenectady, New York, become better readers.
    Reading Is Fun Program founder Al Magid and Amy Lane, Open Door’s general manager, are partnering to help children in Schenectady become better readers.

    Some of the details are still in the planning stages, and that’s fine with Reading Is Fun Program founder Al Magid, who learned about Lane’s vision when he stopped in to ask the bookstore to place an ad in a brochure for a fall fundraiser.

    “I went to solicit the ad, and ended up in a two-hour conversation with Amy,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking of a partnership with a bookstore at all, but by the time I left, we had a partnership. We agreed in five minutes, but spent two hours talking about how it will work.”

    Magid, a retired political science professor at the State University of New York at Albany, started the program four years ago after reading a newspaper article that reported that fewer than a third of city schoolchildren were meeting state standards in testing.

    The program, which now has over 100 volunteers working with more than 150 kids, focuses on children ages four to nine, from preschool to grade three, Magid said.

    “The national data demonstrated that if kids don’t get on the reading track by third grade, nine years old, the probability that that they will do so is very, very small. We focus laser-like on four to nine,” he said.

    The group is now partnering with six organizations in Schenectady: the Schenectady City School District, the Schenectady City School District Education Foundation, the First United Methodist Church, the Boys and Girls Club, the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Office/Jail, and the Schenectady Police Department.

    Open Door has always been perceived as a community bookstore and the partnership makes sense, Magid said.

    “What’s wonderful about Amy and the bookstore is they took the initiative. They proposed it to me. She said, ‘We want to become deeply embedded in the community, not just be a place where people come to buy a book,’” said Magid, who hopes Lane’s customers will buy books for his program. “She will help us raise book donations. We rely heavily on printed books.”

    The Children’s Literacy Foundation reports that while children in middle-income homes have an average of 13 books each, there is only one book for every 300 children in low-income neighborhoods.

    “[Reading Is Fun] wants to build their library. They are so dedicated to the idea of getting kids excited about reading,” Lane said.

    She hopes to develop similar relationships with additional nonprofits in Schenectady, an Upstate New York city of 66,000.

    Open Door already does a book drive for foster kids during the holidays with the Northeast Parent Child Society and has provided books to kids who come to the Schenectady Inner City Ministry Food Pantry.

    Lane’s advice for fellow booksellers who might want to mimic her effort is that they pick groups they believe in.

    “Start with ones you know and have connections to already,” she said. “If you don’t have any, start. It feels good. We’ve been lucky in that the ones we worked with have a lot to do with literacy and getting books in kids’ hands. There’s something gratifying about the looks on kids’ faces when they get books, particularly when they don’t have much else.”