When I was little, the basement was a scary place where monsters and goblins might be dwelling in the dark nooks and crannies. Stacy Ratner made me think of basements in a totally different light. She used hers as a starting point for Open Books, an amazing non-profit organization that provides reading and writing programs for kids at more than 40 Chicago schools. About 50 percent of Open Books’ funding comes from a thriving, unique, 5,000-square-foot store with tens of thousands of used books on its colorful shelves.
It all started in 2006, when Stacy learned that more than half of Chicago’s adult population reads at or below a fourth-grade level. Instead of just “tsk-tsking” about that sad fact, Stacy started collecting book donations in her basement, with plans to sell them in a bookstore with classrooms above for literacy programs. That dream was realized in 2009, when Stacy opened Open Books at 213 West Institute Place in downtown Chicago.
In addition to spreading the love of reading and writing among Chicago school children, Stacy has created a wonderful opportunity for hundreds of Chicagoans to be Open Books volunteers. Whether it’s visiting classrooms for one-on-one reading mentorship, being a “virtual mentor” to a high school junior applying for college, or working in the bookstore (which I recently started to do), being an Open Books volunteer is a rewarding, worthwhile and fun experience. On my first shift alone, I had the memorable experiences of shelving (in the Biography section) Dean Martin next to Karl Marx, helping a bilingual toddler and her dad find the childrens’ foreign language books, and realizing that I may have been one of the few remaining people on Earth who didn’t know the author of The Hunger Games. (It’s Suzanne Collins if you, like me, didn’t already know that.)
So thank you, Stacy, for being a rainbow to all of the Open Books volunteers and, more importantly, to all of the school children who participate in Open Books’ reading and writing programs. And to think that so much goodness grew out of a basement….