Pilsen Reads, an online program created by Pilsen Community Books, is a teacher’s dream.
With only a click, teachers can submit a wish list of hard-to-get Spanish books or any set of books they would like for their classrooms and receive brand new books for their students.
“We want to get more books in the hands of kids,” said Mary Gibbons, part owner of Pilsen Community Books. “The biggest barrier to kids learning and being excited about reading is not having access to books.”
Gibbons and fellow owner Aaron Lippelt opened the store, located at 1102 W. 18th St., in February. The two owners went the brick-and-mortar route after selling books online and hosting book sales the second Friday of every month at their old ware house in Halsted street.
But the for-profit business turned into a way of giving back to the Pilsen community when the owners created Pilsen Reads. Their book giveaway program has donated more than 1,300 books to 10 schools in Pilsen and the South Side, including Horizon Science Academy, Manuel Perez Jr. Elementary School and Cooper Dual Language Academy.
After the teachers have submitted a books’ wish list, Gibbons and Lippelt raise money by setting aside a percentage of their sales to buy brand new books for the classrooms.
“We used to give away used books to teachers but we noticed that often there are really specific things they want, whether it is bilingual books or non-fiction books,” Gibbons said. “Instead of giving a lot of used books to teachers, we give them fewer books but that we know they [will] use because they are picking it themselves.”
Samantha Hayes, a student at Loyola University Chicago and Pilsen resident volunteers to raise money for Pilsen Reads. Hayes said she contacted Gibbons and decided to partner with her because she believed in the service component of the book store.
“I believe in educating children,” Hayes, 33, said. “These young students do not have enough books in their classroom, [or] are very used and worn. It is vital that they have new books.”
Hayes said that after creating a “Fund Me” website, she managed to raise more than $500 through family and friends. She was able to purchase 20 books for her assigned teacher. Hayes, who is still in contact with Gibbons and the teacher, is hopeful in participating in the program at least once a year.
“It was a nice community bond that I have made through this project,” Hayes said.
Lippelt, 42, recalled working with Gibbons at a literacy nonprofit organization that collected used books to give to teachers. The problem was that teachers were giving back the books because they did not fit their classrooms’ needs. Lippelt said he felt like they were giving teachers extra work by going through the books and having to return them.
That’s when they decided to branch out from the nonprofit organization and create a bookstore with a different book giveaway program.
Their most requested books by teachers are Spanish books because they are very hard to get.
Gibbons said they prioritize schools in Pilsen but that any teacher in the Chicago area can submit a wish list. So far, the store has been donating books to two schools per month, with the goal of expanding the program as their resources grow.
Lippelt stressed that having a brand new copy of a book at such a young age inspires students to read. The program, he added, has been so successful that they regularly receive ‘thank you’ notes from students and pictures of the kids holding the books.
“We listened to teachers and kids,” Lippelt said. “The teachers get exactly what they want and the kids get exactly what they [need.]”