Clutching his mother’s wheelchair, 8-year-old Tyrone Greene stared in incredulity at the stacks of books bigger than him.
“It’s a good thing the books are free,” Greene said as he picked up a book with a Tonka truck on the cover. “There’s not even a cash register here.”
In disbelief, Greene searched through the empty boxes, once filled with donated books, for that cash register.
With little success in his search, Greene had inadvertently discovered the most economic place in New Haven to get books.
The New Haven community book bank, located in Chapel Square Mall, gives out books for free. Its founding was part of a yearlong literacy campaign organized by New Haven Reads, a city initiative dedicated to raising public awareness about the power of reading.
Currently, the book bank contains over 25,000 free books to be given out to anyone who wants them. They are piled on the floor, on the shelves, just about everywhere in the former Waldenbooks store, and the donations keep on coming.
“The community response has just been extraordinary,” said Claudia Merson, coordinator from the Office of New Haven and State Affairs.
“People come in here with crates and leave with as many books as they can carry out,” coordinator Mitchell Webber ’03 said.
In this narrow and overfilled store, there was just enough room to walk, and barely enough room to get a wheelchair through.
These piles of books are organized based on a loose interpretation of the Dewey Decimal System. Either new or “gently used,” they are donated from libraries, schools and the Yale Bookstore. Many are textbooks, art books and cookbooks, but never enough children’s books.
A lot of the donations to the book bank come inadvertently from Yale students who return their books to the bookstore or abandon them in dorm rooms, hallways and courtyards when classes end.
“It has been amazing to watch the book bank grow,” said Chris Alexander, coordinator of New Haven Reads. “We started with nothing.”
Although the book bank’s targeted audience is people who don’t use the library, it is open to everyone and it attracts a very diverse group of customers.
Cindy Lawrence heard about the program from a co-worker. A self-proclaimed library-buff, she went to the book bank to select books for herself, as well as for her husband and children.
“They have every sort of book you could want here,” Lawrence said. “It’s absolutely wonderful.”
Many customers bring children to the book bank.
Pat Lopez, who works in Chapel Square Mall, came to the book bank with her granddaughter Gabrielle. Gabrielle, a third grader, was in search of math and science books.
“The winter is coming and [Gabrielle] will be inside more often, so I want to get her books to read,” Lopez said. “I’m hoping this will help get her grades up a little bit.”
Not surprisingly, children’s books are always the most in demand.
“We set up two trolleys outside the store the other day, and what was really heartening was that, by the end of the day, every one of the children’s books was gone,” Merson said.
Books are also distributed to various locations such as police substations, neighborhood businesses, soup kitchens, community development organizations, boys and girls clubs, and churches in an effort to bring books to the places where people gather.
“We are making books available in nontraditional reading spaces,” Merson said.
The book bank is staffed entirely by volunteers. Most staff members are either students or Yale library workers.
“A lot of people give up their lunches to volunteer,” Webber said.
The idea for the book bank came a couple years ago when Don Levy, who worked at the Yale Bookstore, began collecting books with the intention of creating a book bank. Levy got his inspiration from a similar program in Baltimore, Md.
“I have an almost romantic attachment to books” Levy said. “The idea of giving out books for free made me excited.”
Financial support for the book bank comes from a variety of sources.
Chapel Square Mall allows program coordinators to use the space for free. The Yale Class of 1955 made a donation to the project to pay for its part-time coordinator. The University gives all its proceeds from the sale of the “Michelin Guide to Yale” to the cause.
The book bank is open on Mondays and Thursdays from 1:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. and on Saturdays from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Although these are the only guaranteed times the book bank is open, it keeps remarkably flexible hours and is often open at other times when volunteers are willing to take shifts.
Distributions have already been made to many community programs including Yale Summer Sports Program for Kids. And over 400 books have been distributed to kindergarten children in New Haven.
“We’re hoping the book bank will be a lasting legacy of New Haven Reads,” said Johnny Scafidi, Dwight Hall program director. “It will be a lasting community presence after the yearlong literacy campaign is finished.”