BERNIE'S BOOK BANK

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Having distributed nearly 16 million quality books since 2009, Bernie’s Book Bank is working hard to hard to overcome Book Deserts in the Chicagoland area. The organization sources, processes and distributes quality children’s books to significantly increase book ownership among at-risk infants, toddlers and school-age children,  giving those who qualify 12 books per year for 12 years. Founded by Brian Floriani as a tribute to his father, Bernie, who grew up without books, the nonprofit is dedicated to helping children from high-poverty communities gain knowledge through books and reading to enable a legitimate pursuit of happiness and the road to a better life.

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

Two out of three children have no books of their own.  Bernie’s Book Bank, Chicago’s largest provider of quality children’s books is changing that with twelve books per year for twelve years.  Join this episode to find out how Bernie’s Book Bank is working to build a scalable model to end book deserts in cities across the country.  

 

(Music plays)  

 

Molly Ness

Welcome to End Book Deserts, the podcast featuring the innovative people and programs, who spread the love of books and reading culture in our nation’s high poverty areas.  I'm Molly Ness, lifelong reader, book nerd, teacher-educator, and the founder of End Book Deserts.  

 

Molly Ness

The brainchild of Brian Floriani, Bernie’s Book Bank, is the largest book distributor in the Chicago area.  In the ten years since its inception, Bernie’s Book Bank has distributed 15-million books to children under the age of six.  They currently serve nearly 400,000 Chicagoland children and are run of an army of nearly 45,000 volunteers a year.  Today we’re joined by Brian, who explains the origins of the organization, and how he aims to end book deserts in every urban area of the United States.  

 

Molly Ness

I'm happy today to be joined by Brian Floriani of Bernie’s Book Bank outside of the Chicago area.  So Brian, thanks for joining us today.  

 

Brian Floriani

Yes, thanks for having me.  

 

Molly Ness

Let me start by just asking the obvious question: Bernie, who is Bernie, and what is this book bank?  

 

Brian Floriani

Yes.  So, I want to just thank you for your work, and you know, it’s going to take an army of people to solve this one specific problem, but it’s definitely a solvable problem, so I just encourage you to continue to keep getting the word out, because it’s a solvable problem.  So, Bernie is my father.  Bernie grew up in Western Pennsylvania, and both of his parents were immigrants, and his dad was a coal miner for 51 years, and that’s after spending three years on the railroad, starting at age 12.  And, my dad grew up without running water, and didn’t have running water until he went to college.  He went on to get his doctorate, put three kids through college – one which went to the University of Virginia, that’s me, something I'm really proud of – all of us graduated college.  

 

Molly Ness

And for those listeners out there, I am a UVA grad.  

 

Brian Floriani

Yes, Go Hoos!  

 

Molly Ness

Wahoowa.  

 

Brian Floriani

Yes, absolutely.  And so, that’s part of the story behind Bernie’s Book Bank.  The other part of the story is that about 14 years ago now my dad and my grandmother, my dad, Bernie, and my grandmother, died on the same day, which…so, my mom, lost her husband and mother on the same day.  I used to be in the golf business, Molly, and it kind of kicked me off that path.  And as I, you know, really, I was lucky enough, I guess you could say, to eulogize them both.  And as that happened, I really started recognizing that, how significant they were.  They were also successful, but their lives were really about significance.  And, as I reflected on my life, I don’t know if I felt the same way about my life at that time.  And so, through that, and a little bit of a spiritual journey, really was called to just serve, and I really didn’t know what that meant, but it landed me in a school where I thought I wanted to be an elementary school teacher at an at-risk school, and boy did I learn a lot.  I mean I learned a lot about education from another side, right, from communities, at-risk children, literacy, lack of opportunity and equity in schools.  And I also just learned to talk to myself.  And what was happening and what was about to happen is a collision between my experience with these children, they weren’t reading-ready, they didn’t own books at home, nobody was taking them to the library.  And even in the schools that I was working in, and a lot of schools we serve today, you could check books out from the library, but you couldn’t take them home.  So, what I found was teachers lined at the copy machine copying anything they could to staple it together, to give it to children, and that just doesn’t fly with me.  So, that experience, and my dad’s story, collided.  What I realized was my dad was them, and they’re just little Bernies.  And in a country that talks about pursuit of happiness and equity and equality, and it seems we all know how important literacy is, that 61% of low-income homes has zero books in them.  To me, not only was it not acceptable, but it seemed like a variable that could be taken out of the equation.  I mean, and as I look at the literacy equation, Molly, I kind of…I generalize it into two categories.  One, there’s variables we can’t control more, so where they’re born, who they’re born to, what’s the father’s education, mother’s education?  But, there are variables, and book ownership being one of them that’s completely solvable.  But, it requires an ambition that Google required, that Facebook required, that Starbucks required, and that means it’s got to be an effective, efficient, scalable, and sustainable, really, to work.  So, ten years ago, is probably the best time in history to start a non-profit.  We started with a very bold goal, which was to create a metropolitan book bank, children’s book bank model, that was effective, efficient, scalable, and sustainable, and one that we would plan in every major city and state in the country.  As I mentioned, Starbucks, just a minute ago, the way I looked at it was, look, if Starbucks is possible, this is a must.  And so, we won’t stop, I mean literacy is my jam, books is Bernie’s Book Bank jam, and we won’t top until it’s done.  

 

Molly Ness

So, what you’re selling, I am buying, in the sense that I find the words that you’re saying, myself saying them all of the time, that there are so many factors that are challenging, and that are out of our control, as teacher, as social justice activists.  But book access is both unaccusable, but it’s also solvable.  So, why don’t you then, now tell us, some of the things that you are doing to solve this issue.  What is Bernie’s Book Bank working on currently?  And, talk to us about this scalable model.  I think that’s something that makes your work a little bit different than some of the other programs that we’ve spoken to on this podcast, who are book collection agencies, and drives, and such.  

 

Brian Floriani

Well, I think that everybody that’s working on this, their heart is in the right place, their ambition, but I think we need to really approach it like the ‘why’ well outweighs the ‘how’, and that’s where we started.  I mean I'm a recovering golf professional with an entomology degree, which means I don’t really know much about anything.  But what I did know is children need books, and we can do this, if we could…  So, around the model a little bit, there are some really important pillars around this.  One is: we need to go about it with a sense of urgency.  We need to operate like a business and think like brand.  We need to, when we approach relationships, whether it’s with you, Molly, whether it’s with a company, whether it’s a family foundation, whether it’s with a family, we need to approach where we want to be your partner, not your charity.  Now, this has nothing to do with the children we serve yet.  However, it’s critical to a scalable model, especially a non-profit.  Why?  Because, in non-profit, you’re running a business where your productivity is not directly related to your revenue.  First I’d say, don’t start a business where your productivity is going to directly relate to your revenue.  But, that’s what charity is.  And so, in order to create a scalable and reliable and sustainable source of revenue to do what you do, you have to develop strong relationships.  And, strong relationships are dependent upon us looking at you or a company, and being just as interested in what you’re doing and your goals, as you are in ours.  And that’s why I think in just ten years we’re able to say we now serve 360,000 children in Chicagoland with 12 quality books a year from birth through sixth grade.  That’s why we’re able to say we do it for 67-cents a book, all in.  That’s why we’re able to say we have 50,000 unique visitors to our facility every year.  That’s why we’re able to say that 6,000 volunteer hours a month happen at Bernie’s Book Bank.  And, what we’re really proud to say about that, is that, more than 50% of those hours are dedicated by people under the age of 14.  So, we really believe, Molly, that we’re serving two populations, not one.  And, it’s one we don’t speak about, but we’re serving the children we serve, but we’re serving ourselves, meaning, more importantly, our family and our children.  If we can instill a sense of perspective from a very young age, if we can make service a habit, we can change the world.  Not just for the children that we’re serving, right, but for our children.  So, I think of this one challenge that’s not related to book deserts at all, but it’s important to talk about, we have a lot of challenges in our country, but one of the challenges that we have, is we have a perspective issue.  If you were to go out on the street and ask 100 people right now, “How many of you have had a bad day in the last seven days?”  Every single person will raise their hand, and that’s because they don’t know what a bad day is.  So, that’s where we are today.  We at a really interesting inflection point where we’ve gone through a pretty robust strategic planning process over the last two years.  We’ve been extremely entrepreneurial in the first eight years.  But, we’re now in that transition from successful startup to sustainable institution to very different things, and putting ourselves in position to actually start having conversations in other cities.  And we are well aware, there’s great work being done in some of these cities already.  But, what I’ve always thought of for Bernie’s Book Bank is that we are a power plant for ambition.  But, the key is: the size of the ambition, whether it’s about money, books, or time, can’t influence how consistent and reliable the service needs to be to our end user.  We need to start there and work our way backwards.  And so, whether it’s a Girl Scout troop, whether it’s a person that started collecting books on their own, or a family, they need a place and a mechanism for that to flow into that makes a sustainable product coming out the backend, because giving children books is great.  It’s not a new idea, but doing it effectively, efficiently, sustainably, and to scale, is.  And, it has to be something they can rely on, not just when the resources are there.  I think it’s worthy enough that that has to happen.  And I love your passion about it, and I actually love the fact that you use the word angry, because we all need to be a little bit more angry about it.  And it’s not just an emotional discussion on it, we can have that emotional discussion, but let’s say you’re not emotional at all, and this is what I say about it: it’s a practical one.  If you look at the balance sheet of America and wonder why there are so many liabilities – and I'm being very economics here – there are liabilities and there are assets.  Nobody wants to be a liability; they want to be an asset.  And, I think if we can solve this problem in literacy in general, it would be transformative to the country, not only from an economics standpoint, but just think about like the innovation, and the cures for things that are right now laying dormant on the Southside of Chicago, the Northside of Milwaukee, Compton, wherever it may be, because these ideas are not being germinated properly.  

 

Molly Ness

And what I appreciate about my anger about the situation is that it’s fueled action, and anger is an emotion, unless you channel into something that’s useful, just eats you up inside.  But, as I’ve been talking to so many literacy activists, they are looking at these book deserts with anger and spawning that, using that into action.  So let’s, then, break it down a little bit into the populations that you are working with.  Start with the children that you’re serving.  You mentioned it was about 360,000.  Who are those kids?  What are they getting from you?  How do you meet their needs?  Tell us about just the logistics of getting book access to those kids.  

 

Brian Floriani

Great.  So, logistics is the proper word, and that’s essentially what we are – we’re a logistics organization.  So, you know, at the core of it all, you’re trying to reach economically disadvantaged children, because the research shows that if they’re economically disadvantaged, they probably have food insecurities as well as book insecurities, and if you were to look at two maps and put them on top of each other, the same place there’s food deserts, there’s book deserts, as you already know.  So, what’s interesting about this is that in Chicagoland, and we call Chicagoland, Chicago proper plus the surrounding collar counties, and we would look at any other city that way as well, and we’re going to approach it that way.  But, we’ve identified about 500,000 children, and that’s based on WIC, WIC numbers, so WIC is women, infant children, if you don’t know, and a combination of the two things within schools.  If a school is over 40% free or reduced lunch, and/or Title 1, every child in that school qualifies for our program.  Because, what we’re ultimately trying to do is create a continuum of distribution from birth through sixth grade.  Now, the biggest challenge is: how do you do that when it’s such a large number and you can’t follow through in an email address or a home address.  Well, you have to piggyback on infrastructure that already exists to serve them.  Now, WIC isn’t fool proof.  It’s used by the people who qualify at different percentages in different parts of the country, but it’s a good foundation where we are in Chicago, and other cities, that are going to be open to other scalable strategies that serve zero to five population.  But, the five to twelve in the schools is a pretty fool proof strategy, right.  And so, right now, we have over 900 partners in Chicagoland, and it’s a commitment.  We go to an understanding agreement and we say we’re committing six books to you twice a year.  WIC works a little bit different.  WIC, they come lose, and they get to choose them and they get a bag and take them home with six books each time.  And then the schools, they’re delivered twice a year.  We have our own drivers.  And, each child gets a bag of books.  Each bag is different.  It’s leveled out to their reading level, and then they’re given five to ten minutes of training time, which actually is a wonderful social activity, but that’s where choice comes in, and as you know, choice is critical when it comes to books.  Now, that makes all this really, really interesting, right, because you’ve got…if you’re serving 500,000 children eventually in Chicagoland, that’s means every year, 6-million books a year.  Now, what makes that really interesting is that it’s not just 6-million books in volume; it’s the right volume in the right grade levels at the right variety at the right time.  And so, if you were to come to our facility, which I know you’re going to do one day, because you look like a world traveler.  You’re going to come hang out with me in Chicago, because this is a movement, Molly, you are right, it’s a movement and it needs to be a brand and a product of its own, and we should be talking about it every day on every street corner on every radio show until it’s fixed in our country.  But, I'm not talking about books here, I'm talking about literacy in general, but it becomes a huge science when you look at our facility because we’re pushing 150,000 a week, and we have to know what content is coming in at the right time so as we make what I would call book soup, so it’s a big mixture of books, that are now put into little bags of books soup, right, that we can rely on that so that logistically the machine does not stop moving.  And so, it takes a combination of a lot of strategies from inflow standpoint, from a book standpoint, but this is so completely solvable.  I mean everything that we’ve done at Bernie’s Book Bank is taking a concept from another industry, whether it’s on the logistics side, technology, I mean I’ve used stuff out of my golf experience.  So, I hope that answered your question.  It’s not easy all the time, but it’s pretty simple.  

 

Molly Ness

Well, I'm ready to book my ticket to Chicago, because I have a feeling that just being in your facility and seeing the army of volunteers, and the thoughtfully chosen and selected for-each-child-book, would just totally be my happy place.  What’s so obvious in your work is that you are really so purposeful, and not looking at this problem just as a short-term thing to be fixed; but you’re really trying to get the right books into the right hands at the right time.  In my opinion, ending book deserts isn’t just flooding kids with books, it’s make sure that their books are inclusive and representative of their realities, and it’s also creating a culture around literacy, because that culture around literacy is going to carry us into the long-term much more than just, “here are some books, and be on your way.”  So talk then a little bit about where you’re going in the future.  It’s hard to top the numbers you’re already reporting.  But, where would you like to go in the future?  

 

Brian Floriani

Right.  Well, I'm going to say one thing about what you said and I think this needs to be highlighted.  Free isn’t good enough.  I think we start with what they need and we work backwards.  And that means, so…  One of the things we do have at Bernie’s Book Bank is book advisory council, which is a bunch of people that are at like 360-degree view.  I mean if you ever want a really passionate heated discussion, get a bunch of people that are passionate about reading and literacy and books, and put them into a room, and just throw one question out there, like, “What makes a book, a book?”  “What makes a book religious?”  These types of things.  But, these people have been great because they help us formulize a philosophy around what we distribute and why.  You know, one half of our books are brand new.  So, there is a certain standard around condition and quality.  There is also a certain standard around culturally relevant and highly engaging.  You know, if something that kind of, as a Caucasian male, as I reflect upon when I was that age, and I think about the books that we read, I'm a little ashamed, because every character in those books looked like us, and I can’t imagine what that would feel like.  Thankfully, we work with all major publishers in the country and I can tell you that the book industry…by the way, I don’t think books are going away.  When it comes to children’s books, if there is a flourishing part of publishing, it’s children’s books.  So anybody out there who is thinking, what about technology?  I mean I’ve only been asked that question at least 500,000 times.  And they’re good questions.  But, the market is reflecting that children need books.  And I'm not talking about the books we choose, we’re serving, but our children or anybody’s children, and the market is flushing that out.  To answer your question about where we’re going, I mean we’re about the springboard now.  I mean we hired a CEO about 15 months ago.  His name is Darrin Utynek.  He’s an incredible person.  From a personal standpoint, a founder’s standpoint, he’s a blessing in my life.  And you know, that doesn’t always go real well.  Sometimes when you have a founder and you have a CEO, but I think it’s been an incredible fit.  He comes from the American Red Cross, so he came with a lot of great experience.  We’re real excited about the conversations we’re having in other cities now.  So, we really, you know…  I want to stress this.  When I say we want to be in every major city in the country, I mean it.  I want us to be an American institution to make this American problem go away forever.  Having said that, there is a way that you enter cities properly and you develop relationships with anybody else who’s doing any kind of other work in those cities.  And so, for all of you out there that maybe doing this kind of work, and you’re listening to this, know we’re very passionate about what we do, and serious about solving the problem.  We also understand there is a right way to do it.  However, we need to keep a balance between caring more about the children we need to serve, or more about our personal pride.  And I think and I hope that all of us would agree we need to solve the problem regardless of our pride.  So, you called us at a really great time, because we’re having interesting conversations in many cities, and I believe once we replicate once or twice, and we do it well, I think we need to make sure that we do it well, I think planting multiple book banks in multiple cities in one year is there.  I mean, think about it, Molly, so at 67-cents a book, this needs to be shouted from the mountaintops.  At 67-cents a book, and by the way, I think it can be done for (inaudible) for better.  10-million children a year receiving 12 books every year.  So, that’s basically take the population of all the major cities, think of the poverties rates, and so on and so forth, about 10-million children, it would only cost $75-million a year.  Now, think about what some companies have spent this morning, $75-million.  They spit and that comes out, right.  So, I think we do have to come at it that way.  I mean we have to speak their language, right.  We’re going to have to marry our mission with margin.  Ain’t no margin, no mission, have to show incredible, and we have to show how we can be a partner to these companies and family foundations and people that want to support us, right.  

 

Molly Ness

Well, I know that the other organizations and literacy activists that are out there doing work in their communities, but if teachers riding bicycles into public housing, to little free libraries, all these different organizations, will certainly benefit from some of your business perspective about this, about this problem.  It would be great if none of you all existed, because that would mean that book deserts didn’t exist.  

 

Brian Floriani

Agree.  

 

Molly Ness

But, until they do, the work that you guys are doing, not only would make your father so proud, but really serves as a beacon of hope, and for us doing the work, so much to be learned from you.  So as we wrap up, let me ask you my favorite question that I ask of every guest.  The reason that I ask this question is because of my belief that ending book deserts also entails creating a culture of literacy where people are having collaborative conversations about books and about their reading identities and reading lives.  So, I would love if you could share one book from your past or present that has really impacted you as a read and as a human being.  I know it’s hard to choose one book, but what might that book be that really stands out for you?  

 

Brian Floriani

Well, of course, there are many, right.  You know, if you want to be a lifelong reader, you got to just be continually reading, and I work on that every day.  But, I will say that there is…  I get asked that question a lot and the answer is always the same.  It’s a children’s book and I'm not saying that just because we are a children’s book bank.  Well, when talking about like something that’s changed your life in many ways, so back when I was about five years old, we had this cat named Wicker.  Wicker was super cool.  He was an awesome cat.  You know, at this age, you’re remembering him from a five year old’s mentality, right, and that never goes away.  So, it was kind of my first experience with death.  Wicker passed away.  I remember, you know, it was back in the days where we still had a lot of wallpaper.  Everybody had wallpaper, right.  So, we were…  And, I can just picture the room.  It was kind of in disarray because we had moved everything to the center, because my dad was re-wallpapering, you know, the wall.  I can picture the couch, exactly what it looked like.  How the angle it was set.  And, he gets the family around and he reads to us, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney.  So, it’s a book about a cat that dies and you know, those parents are trying to explain you know, transitioning kids from being sad to being, you know, understanding the cycle, and so on and so forth.  And so, a couple of things.  First of all, my dad reading to all of us, I can see him right now, it provided comfort, right.  Not only that, it was kind of my first forte into understanding the purpose of life and the cycle of life.  I think that that’s critical, right, for all of us to understand, as human beings, right, we’re all born, we all die, but there is a purpose for all of that, even when you die.  This scenario, they bury the cat, Barney, and then flowers start to grow.  And, what’s really interesting about that is that when I look at my dad’s death, I always say, “We all have people along our lives where people pass away and there is a hole created in our heart.”  We’d be foolish to think that the hole is ever going away; it’s not.  Now, you have a choice.  You can ignore it and think it’s going to go away, and that’s probably not healthy.  You can fill it full of bunch of junk and try to disguise it and make yourself believe it’s not there, but that’s not real healthy.  Or, you can plant a seed in it, and nurture it and make something really incredible grow out of it.  And what the parallel is between that book, is Bernie dies, pushes up daisies, daisies come from this.  And from my dad’s death, we have Bernie’s Book Bank which will have a transgenerational impact on many, many, many, many children, and hopefully the country.  And so, the net-net of it all is there is an unlimited power in books, stories, and that’s never going to change.  It’s the one thing that I think in humanity, which will be here for the test of time, and that’s books.  And so, thanks for letting me share that with you.  

 

Molly Ness

Well, the comfort that that book provided for you at that point in your life, certainly the work that you and Bernie’s Book Banks are doing is providing similar comfort to the kids that you are working with in the Chicago area.  Just as the flowers started to grow at the cat’s grave, books are now growing and being passed along to child in Chicago because of the amazing work and innovation of Bernie’s Book Bank.  Thank you so much for your time and we will look forward to hearing more about your work.  We’ll look forward to seeing you in cities all around the country.  And, our listeners can find out more about your work through our website, endbookdeserts.com.  Thanks again for your time and for your passion.  

 

Brian Floriani

Thank you and don’t stop.  I mean we got to keep cropping wood until we…’til the tree falls, and it’s sooner than you think.  So, I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today, Molly.  

 

Molly Ness

Thank you.  


Molly Ness

That wraps it up for this episode of End Book Deserts.  If you know of a person or program doing innovative work to get books into the hands of readers, email me at molly@endbookdeserts.com.  For more about my work and for the program featured on this episode, check out our webpage, www.endbookdeserts.com.  Follow me on social media at End Book Deserts and share your stories and reactions with the hashtag #endbookdeserts.  Thanks to Duane Wheatcroft for graphics and copy, and to Benjamin Johnson for sound editing.  Until the next episode, happy reading!