Book Bank evolves into literary center

Literally bursting at the seams with used books, the New Haven Book Bank has outgrown its third location in five years.

Currently located behind an unassuming storefront on Lincoln Way, the Book Bank, which serves as New Haven’s center for the collection and redistribution of new and slightly-used books, is slated to move into a larger space at 45 Bristle St. in late fall, director Chris Alexander said.

Since 2001, the Book Bank has been providing its offerings to organizations such as the Hill Health Center, the Dixwell Clinic, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens. Dwight Hall program director Johnny Scafidi said about 120,000 books were distributed to various community organizations this past year, compared to a total distribution of approximately 70,000 books in the first two years of operation.

The Book Bank’s further expansion should better address the dismal literacy rates in New Haven, Alexander said.

“Sixty-seven percent of adults over the age of 16 in New Haven operate at the two lowest literacy levels on the five-step literacy scale,” Alexander said. “[These adults] can’t read a bus schedule and can’t fill out a job application.”

The project was originally sponsored in part by funds provided by Yale’s class of 1955 and Yale Properties donated the space on Park Street, in addition to the current space off Audubon Street. Far from its humble roots as a collection of books stockpiled by New Haven community members, the Book Bank is now a hub for literacy.

“The idea for The Book Bank originated from a campaign called ‘New Haven Reads,’ which was an initiative led by several literacy organizations and the public library of New Haven,” Scafidi said. “The idea was to give the community free access to books they could keep, as opposed to the books they would have to return to the library, and have a lasting effect on literacy.”

Over the years, a number of Yale students have had the opportunity to work at the Book Bank through a work-study program funded by Dwight Hall, and many others have volunteered.

Approximately 60 students from all grade levels are enrolled in the Book Bank’s tutoring program, with another 60 on the waiting list. Megan Barry ’06 has tutored children through the Book Bank, using books and manuals provided by the center.

“During the fall semester, I tutored a third grader who was having some trouble reading,” she wrote in an e-mail. “In the spring, I helped a high school girl with algebra. It was nice for me to have a chance to volunteer my time and actually see the progress that was being made on a weekly basis.”

Alexander said the dedication of the volunteers has enabled the Book Bank to undergo its rapid expansion. With the impending move to Bristle Street, Alexander is interested to see if the greater availability of books in their new neighborhood will significantly affect the literacy rates — just keeping books around the house can lead to improved literacy, she said.

For the time being, however, day-to-day operations continue to be a challenge, as the Bank is faced with limited space and financial resources and an extensive wait-list for the tutoring program. Nevertheless, Alexander said she and her staff remain committed to the mission of the Book Bank.

“We can’t afford to have another generation with the same literacy rates as we have this present day,” she said. “Teaching someone to read is not rocket science and we do know how to do it. Why isn’t every kid in New Haven benefiting from that?”

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