As the impact of the new coronavirus became clear for Madison, Conn. indie R.J. Julia Booksellers, owner Roxanne Coady was faced with the question of how to ensure that the store’s 30 full-time employees have a paycheck and the store itself has a future. The answer was to give books away to children who need them.

In a March 23 appeal, Coady asked customers to show their support by purchasing books through the store for distribution to the 1,500 children receiving lunches in the New Haven public schools. In a matter of weeks, the idea gained a powerful advocate in U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, grew to include the Bridgeport public schools, and as of April 8, raised $150,000.

“Like everybody, I was a wreck, and thinking, where are we going to get money?” Coady said. “At the same time, I do a lot of work with the schools, and I was hearing how many lunches they were giving out. I thought, people want to be helpful, so why not generate sales that give books to people who otherwise would not have access?”

The idea quickly gained supporters, including Sen. Murphy, with whom the bookstore was working to launch the now-postponed Bridgeport Book Fest. Murphy sent an e-mail to his constituents, and the response was overwhelming. The store raised $100,000 in a single day.

The result is that Coady will be able to distribute approximately 30,000 books in New Haven and Bridgeport. 7,500 K–8 readers will receive a book a week for four weeks when their families go to pick up their lunches. Coady will select the titles based on age group with her buyers, two sales representatives from Penguin Random House, and the executive director of Read to Grow. Ten percent of the funds will go to Read and Grow to support their work coordinating the distribution of the books.

For the bookstore, the success of the initiative, combined with online sales to general readers, and federal support, is enough to ensure that Coady does not have to lay off any of her full-time employees. “This could close the gap for us,” Coady said.

Given the unprecedented nature of the public health crisis, Coady said she remains concerned about what the future will bring for small businesses, including independent bookstores, which are particularly vulnerable in an economic downturn. But, she added, the outpouring of support from customers is a source of hope and inspiration. “It’s just the coolest,” Coady said. “I do believe that tough times bring out the best in people, and I think there’s probably a lot more stories like this out there.”