Books Inc., an independent bookstore with 11 locations across the Bay Area and a long-running book fair program, will operate its future book fairs as a 501(c)(3) literary nonprofit called the Reading Bridge.

When the new school year opens this fall, Books Inc.’s Reading Bridge will serve schools through two book fair models. The first will be a traditional fair, with a portion of earnings going to the host school as a fundraising opportunity and additional earned income supporting the nonprofit. The second model, known as the Bridge program, is designed for federally funded Title 1 schools in underserved communities, and enables every student to take home one book of their choice.

“For a number of years now we’ve been thinking about how we can expand the communities we serve within the Bay Area,” said Books Inc. CEO Andy Perham, who also serves on the board of directors of Binc, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation. “We felt there was a real opportunity in a nonprofit organization that could benefit from its relationship to Books Inc., while not having the same financial pressures of a for-profit business.” In January 2023, Books Inc. committed to developing its nonprofit component for “Title 1 schools in the Bay Area who had not fit into our previous model.”

“We work with the more affluent schools in the Bay Area, but we want to serve everyone, and it’s hard to do that when you have to focus on profit,” said Reading Bridge executive director Hannah Walcher. Prior to becoming the nonprofit’s executive director, Walcher worked as Books Inc.’s children’s events and book fair manager, with “fond memories of school book fairs.” Operating under a for-profit model, she began noticing “how sad some people found working the book fairs, because they’d see kids who’d come to the register and not have enough money,” or kids who idly browsed without being able to take anything home.

As a nonprofit, the Reading Bridge will operate two kinds of fairs that “will look the same, with cash registers that can take all types of payment,” said Walcher. Schools qualifying for the Bridge program will communicate with the Reading Bridge ahead of time, and the nonprofit will ensure that every student gets a book. “Choice is really important to us, because if you don’t get to choose the book you’re reading, you’re not going to be excited about it,” Walcher said.

The Reading Bridge has filed an application for 501(c)(3) status and may begin taking donations while awaiting final approval; it plans to work collaboratively with existing organizations that support families and teachers. “When we were doing research [on founding a nonprofit], we wanted to make sure we weren’t stepping on other literary nonprofits,” Walcher said. “As a for-profit, we’ve worked with a lot of them before. We know we do book fairs really well,” so fairs will be the Reading Bridge’s focus.

She added that since “we’re a local independent bookstore and now a local independent nonprofit, it will be exciting to see what being a nonprofit opens up for us.” While the fairs already do a brisk business in titles from Scholastic, PRH, and Hachette, “maybe some smaller publishers might have unique titles that do well in the book fair program.”

The Reading Bridge’s board of directors includes board president Calvin Crosby, owner of The King’s English in Salt Lake City; secretary Cassie Perham, founding co-director of the nonprofit Oakland Literacy Coalition (and wife of Andy Perham); and treasurer Dandy Conway, a longtime district sales manager with Penguin Random House.

Andy Perham explained that the Reading Bridge found promising examples in Brain Food Books, the nonprofit arm of The King’s English; Charis Circle of feminist indie Charis Books in Decatur, Ga.; and indies with community-centered or charitable missions including Hub City Bookshop (Spartanburg, S.C.), the Seminary Co-op Bookstores (Chicago), and literary arts nonprofit Bookmarks (Winston-Salem, N.C.).

“We are certainly aware that, across the country, we are part of a broader conversation about the potential role of nonprofits in independent bookselling,” Perham said.