As executive director of Pittsburgh early literacy nonprofit Reading Ready Pittsburgh, Mary Denison knows the ABCs of helping families share the joy of reading and prepare their children for kindergarten. A, of course, is for access. “There’s all sorts of research about how the number of books in the home correlates with how successful children are in school,” she says. “And one of the biggest impacts on early literacy is how much time adults spend reading with their children. Every child should have access to a full bookshelf.”

With that mission in mind, Denison’s organization opened B Is for Books on February 1 in Homestead, Pa., just southeast of Pittsburgh, an “absolutely, 100% free bookstore” where kids and families can browse, read, and select up to three books at a time to take home and keep.

The store’s wooden shelves contain an array of new and gently used books obtained via donations and various funding sources. Staff librarian Kathy Koltas curates the collection, aimed at kids age 18 and under, which consists of everything from board books to graphic novels to YA titles.

Comfy furniture, including a rocker ideal for book sharing, a storytime area featuring a large mural of a tree and available tree-stump-shaped floor cushions, and a cozy, treehouse-like reading nook replete with leafy-looking beanbags make up the location’s family-friendly decor.

Like most children’s bookstores, B Is for Books also hosts events. A grand opening on February 17 showcasing crafts and snacks drew roughly 100 kids and their families; on April 20, more than 60 kids and their families turned out for two puppet show performances.

“The storefront initially came to me as an idea when I was visiting my family in Milwaukee and I stopped into a bookstore I always go to,” Denison says. “Inside the store was this big bucket filled with books and it said, ‘Donate.’ ” When she inquired about it, a bookseller informed her that the donated books were going to a free children’s bookstore run by local organization Next Door, which supports under-resourced children and families through early childhood education and other services. “I ended up contacting them, and eventually scheduling a trip to visit,” Denison recalls. “When I went in and toured what they did, I thought, ‘We could definitely do this in Pittsburgh.’ ”

B Is for Books soon became the newest project under the Reading Ready Pittsburgh umbrella. Denison founded the nonprofit in 2018, inspired by her 35 years of experience as a school psychologist. “I loved working with the kids,” she says. “But school psychology is a reactive field. We wait until people are having problems and then we help. I feel like school psychologists should be more proactive. We should be working at making sure problems don’t occur. Early literacy—building vocabulary and language, playing with words, being engaged with literature, having conversations, playing games with sounds, and having books in the home—that’s the beginning of it all. I wish more parents knew how simple and easy it is to build that kind of skill before you hit kindergarten, and then how much better prepared the children are to be successful in school.”

From its inception, Reading Ready Pittsburgh has partnered with national early literacy organization Raising a Reader to offer that group’s book-sharing programs locally via preschools, daycares, and home visits. There are currently 41 childcare or Head Start sites participating, with 1,000 children enrolled. “We provide them with the books and we do trainings with them to make sure everyone is moving forward,” Denison says.

Reading Ready Pittsburgh has placed 13 Little Giveaway Libraries in neighborhoods where children’s books are most needed. “At our little libraries, we’re not expecting people to trade books,” Denison points out. “We have a sign on them that says, ‘Take these home and add them to your home library.’ And now the storefront is the exact same thing—it’s a big little library.”

Another outreach program Denison hopes to build is Community Space Reading Nooks, something she’s been working on in partnership with the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail initiative. The idea is to provide books in bright and cozy corners for sharing within places like laundromats or under-resourced community centers, where kids and families might have to wait around. So far, Reading Ready Pittsburgh has installed nooks in two local laundromats and a family center.

In addition to other local and national partnerships, Reading Ready Pittsburgh also coordinates Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library for Pittsburgh and in several additional zip codes that make up the nearby Monongahela Valley, serving 6,700 children in total.

Across the spectrum of Reading Ready Pittsburgh’s programming, care is taken to provide kids and families with books that reflect their community. Recent requests have included bilingual board books in Arabic, Bengali, Nepali, and Spanish. Because those titles are harder to come by, Reading Ready Pittsburgh recently hired one of the mothers in a program to translate several board books by adding the Nepali words.

Denison positioned B Is for Books as part of a larger grant she submitted to Allegheny County’s Department of Children Initiatives. “In the grant, I said that I’d like to add kindergarten readiness programming and education for early childcare centers about books, and I’d like to do work around how books can be used to teach social emotional skills in preschool programming,” she says. “Then I threw in, ‘And what about if we had a free bookstore?’ And they loved the idea.”

As a result of Denison’s grant proposal, Allegheny County provided the bulk of the startup funds for what is now known as the Mon Valley Early Literacy Hub, which encompasses B Is for Books, all of Reading Ready Pittsburgh’s programs, and more. Additional funding comes largely from grants awarded by local and some national philanthropic foundations, but community book drives and individuals who donate books or money are important sources, too. Denison and Koltas say they were surprised and pleased to learn that one of B Is for Books’ early donors was Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry (author of The Giver and Number the Stars); she filled out one of the forms on the organization’s website.

The bricks-and-mortar B Is for Books location also houses workspace for Denison and her team, which in addition to Koltas includes program director Megan Chips, outreach coordinator Mark Sepe, and program coordinator Hannah Zibert. There’s plenty of room for the organization to keep up with its steady flow of books, as well, whether it’s incoming donations, sorting and evaluation of materials, outgoing giveaways, promotional posters and materials, or the traveling tote bags containing Raising a Reader titles.

Aside from its more traditional bookstore functions, B Is for Books additionally serves as a resource for early childhood educators and other community organizations who work with children. Educators can find continuing education opportunities or meet with in-house librarian Koltas to select books for classroom use. And the store will fill requests for books to be used in other spaces as well.

“We have a form on our website where any educator in Allegheny County, or somebody who’s community-facing like a social worker or a pediatrician’s office—or we had a parole officer that has done this—who wants to have books that they can share with kids and families can make a request for up to 50 books,” Denison explains. B Is for Books has filled more than 50 such requests since opening in February.

I wish more parents knew how simple and easy it is to build early literacy skills before you hit kindergarten.

Denison notes that the fast-approaching summer will be a busy one for Reading Ready Pittsburgh and B Is for Books, kicking off with nearby Braddock Literacy Day on June 1, and then filled with several book fairs, as well as a slate of outreach and in-store events. During the summer, Raising a Reader is supplanted by Reading Ready Pittsburgh’s eight-week Read with Me! program, wherein children at those sites will receive a brand-new book each week to keep. Each child enrolled in Raising a Reader also receives a library bag at the end of the school year to bring to their local branch where librarians offer further reading readiness support and programming.

And for summer and beyond, the hope is that even more people discover the free bookstore. “The feeling, which I now get to share with my granddaughter, of wandering around the bookstore and checking out the books, talking about which one you like—that whole experience is so nurturing,” Denison says. “And then the child gets to leave with a book that belongs to them. It’s really impactful.”

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