It may come as no surprise, given the HE Butt Grocery chain’s emphasis on literacy, but its HEB Plus Store in Laredo, Tex., had the biggest turnout at any stop on the route of this summer’s 17-city Junie B. Jones Stupid Smelly Bus Tour. Over 700 people came to see Junie B. and Mr. Woo in a town of 250,000 that couldn’t support a general bookstore; Laredo’s last general bookstore, a B. Dalton, closed at the beginning of the year.
HEB also brought in crowds to see the two Barbara Park characters in Houston, where over 600 children and parents attended. It held a charity event at its home office in San Antonio, where it gave out free Junie B. Jones books to over 225 children from a local shelter, United Way, and the Boys and Girls Club.
“I’m always looking for children’s events,” says Jim Dahlen, senior buyer, publishing and audio/video electronics. “Our whole culture for the company is family and community.” That translates into 16 feet of children’s books in 140 out of 300 HEB grocery stores in Texas. “I don’t just want coloring books. I want young children reading in our store,” Dahlen adds, citing studies indicating that the number one reason for low children’s literacy in the state of Texas is the lack of reading material in the home. Based on his own research, he’s found that if HEB stocks inexpensive children’s books—mostly Golden Books and paperbacks—people will buy.
“Literacy for me is important, because I love my company and the future for any company is having an educated work force. With all the video and gaming, a lot of kids have forgotten how important reading is,” says Dahlen. However, one driver for his literacy push is personal. “My life changed dramatically nine years ago, when I had my first grandson,” he says.
At the end of July, HEB opened its first children’s literacy center inside its store in Tomball. The 300 sq. ft. space, located between toys and publishing, is dedicated to children’s reading. Parents can see their kids sitting at tables or lying on the floor reading, but it’s outside the traffic area. No shopping carts are allowed.
Not every store or community is large enough to support a literacy center, but those that can will also have programming every weekend aimed at children. When the Laredo store is remodeled later this year, it will add a literacy center, too. And Dahlen is also beginning to experiment with ways to promote adult literacy.
A decade ago, HEB introduced the H-E-Buddy character, which is drawn to resemble a talking grocery bag with arms. It has a Web site aimed at children, which promotes healthy eating, and an H-E-Buddy costume. The store mascot is also a presence in the literacy center at Tomball. Its image is painted on the wall under the banner: “Reading opens a window to the world!”
Since 2002, HEB, which is #19 on Forbes’s list of the largest privately held companies in the U.S., has given annual education awards totaling more than $500,000 to teachers, principals, and school districts.