BOOK ACCESS IN A PANDEMIC

As Fall 2020 is unlike no other time, I revisit previous organizations who have quickly pivoted to end book deserts in the COVID19 pandemic. This episode's guests include:

  • Book Depot

  • Unite for Literacy

  • BookSmiles

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness:

According to a July 2020 survey of nearly 3,000 educators, book access is a pressing issue in the COVID-19 pandemic. This survey completed by First Book whom I featured in a previous podcast revealed that 86% of educators are more concerned about kids having no books at home for extended periods of time than they were before the pandemic. 61% said that they would need a restocked classroom library because many books were distributed to students when schools closed earlier this year. With these numbers in mind, I revisit some of my previous guests to find out how their work to end book deserts is even more important now.

 

Molly Ness:

Welcome to End Book Deserts, the podcast, featuring the innovative people and programs who work to provide book access to our nation's under-resourced areas or overlooked populations. I'm Dr. Molly Ness, lifelong reader book nerd teacher educator. I've created the End Book Deserts podcasts so that all children have access to books and reading culture. The End Book Deserts podcast, a part of the education podcast network, just like the show you're listening to now shows on the network are individually owned and opinions expressed may not reflect others. Find other interesting education podcasts at edupodcastnetwork.com.

 

Molly Ness:

First, I had the pleasure of chatting with my inspiring friend Larry Abrams of Book Smiles based in southern New Jersey. Larry watched people using Door Dash to pick up takeout foods and thought why not apply the same approach to books?

 

Larry Abrams:

And so, I thought to myself, wait, why not just flip what we're doing and take lessons from Door Dash, which is how people safely get food. And let's just apply it to books. Before that teachers had come to the book bank. And it was a lot like a used bookstore where they would just come in and take up to 100, 150 50 books, uh, and they could cherry-pick and select the book. Book Smiles was a social place and I realized now that that's not going to happen for quite a while. We won't be able to do that. The Door Dash thing started at work first, a couple of teachers started coming to the book bank and we will do curbside pickups where we would give them, uh, a full box or two of books after they described what levels they were serving. And then we had these wonderful big-hearted teachers going from home to home. You know, we teachers have the addresses of our students. And so, what they were doing was a Door Dash to all 25 of their students. And it was a beautiful, beautiful thing. So the curbside pickups were working really well. And then I looked at what the school districts were doing with the feeding sites, uh, where, uh, districts that have title one schools would, uh, invite hundreds of people to line up in their cars or walk. And they would get a free food distribution because a lot of families are really struggling. And so, we were successfully able to inject, uh, the distribution of well over 10,000 books in five different districts in my area. Bottom line, uh, we are now, um, accepting and moving 20, over 20,000 books a month, which was, uh, which is a lot more than pre- COVID levels. And I expect to even add another 10, 15,000 a month onto that.

 

Molly Ness:

Because Larry is a teacher himself. And so much of the work of Book Smiles puts books into classrooms, our conversation inevitably turned to what the fall might bring.

Larry Abrams:

And one of the big draws in the past was to have teachers come to the book bank and assemble a beautiful classroom library, basically for free or for a nominal donation. And they can keep coming back to replenish that library as, um, you know, with the students, as they give books to their students. We can't do that anymore. And we may not be able to do it until January or February, who knows when we'll be able to do that again. But one thing that we will continue to be able to do as teachers is augment, what we do by distributed, and this is not for every teacher and I wouldn't expect every teacher to do this, but I've seen again, dozens upon dozens of these big-hearted teachers who say we have to bring the books to the kids. Uh, this is what a fellow who is a social worker supervisor in Philadelphia, uh, had been doing pre-COVID is he would give books to his, uh, uh, to the, to the people who worked in his office. And they would go from house to house whenever they needed to make their social working rounds. And they would always have baby board books and other books for the kids. So that's, that's the secret sauce. That's how we're going to do it. Lots of crowdsourcing. And having teachers do all the legwork, we teachers are a mighty0 mighty force.

 

Molly Ness:

I'm recording this episode in mid-August, a time of enormous uncertainty for anyone in the world of education. As I've previously mentioned, I'm a former classroom teacher. And for the past 15 years, I've been a university professor in teacher education. My personal and professional world is made up of teachers. And there's no time ever that has been more difficult for teachers than today. All over my social media. I read about teachers who are struggling to get books into the hands of their students. Librarians who are forced to remove books from shelves, for fear of COVID transmission and schools struggling to provide digital book access for students in virtual learning. That's why I hosted my next guest- Book Depot who works tirelessly to provide teachers and parents low-cost, high-quality books.

Book Depot:

We've been in business for over 30 years. Um, we are all about enchanting the mind. That is what we are all about. And we do that really through book accessibility and having a great selection at super, super low prices. And hopefully, that helps people who typically can't necessarily get as many books as they should deserve it yet. Yeah, so ultimately, we were inbounding around 350 or 400 to 450,000 books per week, uh, into our 500,000 square foot warehouse facility here. Um, we're offering 75 to 90% off list prices normally, and we've done a little bit better than that during the COVID pandemic to try and help with that accessibility piece as well. Um, our inventory, our books, they're great. They're not frontlist. They are remainders. Um, we, our inventory is made up of publisher’s access books, which may have been handled a few times, but they're, uh, they're all unread and they're guaranteed to be in excellent condition. So in other words, you're getting a like-new book for a lot less likely prints. Um, so yeah, that, that's in a nutshell, what we do, we are a wholesale wholesaler of remainder books, and we're just doing our best to train the champions.

Molly Ness:

So let me, um, ask a couple more questions about that, particularly about who you serve. So I'm a former classroom when I started, um, my sixth-grade classroom, however, many years ago, I walked into an empty classroom. I think lots of us operate under this assumption that teachers walk in and our classroom libraries are, are, are built-in already there. And that is certainly not the case. And, um, especially after the COVID pandemic, we know that school funding is going to be extraordinarily tight, um, even tighter than it was before. So, for lots of teachers who are facing this, how do I stock my classroom library? Are there any restrictions? In other words, there are organizations that you have to be served serving a certain population, is this available to everybody is available to parents. So walk us through the logistics a little bit more.

 

Book Depot:

Sure. So, we have two channels that we serve communities through. Uh, we have a wholesale division, which is bookdepot.com and that's an online wholesale, a website that is for institutions, uh, for book resellers as well. But my focus is for the library education, ECE, uh, segment. And so, if you're a teacher, if you are a, a librarian, library tech media specialists, whatever the case may be, you're looking to try and stock your classroom or a library. Uh, you can visit bookdepot.com and sign up. There's really takes about five minutes to do. It's quite easy. You don't really need any institutional information except for your billing address and shipping address. So, it's quick painless. And then once you get going, um, the minimums are a hundred dollars per order. So, it's one of the lowest minimums that we're aware of in the, in the book reseller. So as far as wholesale goes, um, to, uh, to access rate pricing. So that's it really, in a nutshell, that's the basics. We try to keep it as simple, as smooth as possible. And again, going back to accessibility, trying to fit into that mall.

Molly Ness:

And are you restricted in terms of quantity? So, in other words, do you have to buy 30 copies of whatever book, or can you pick and choose and build your library really tailored to the needs of your students or your kids at home?

Book Depot:

Yeah. Great question. So if you're an institution you're buying on Book Depot of your schooling, the library, let's say, uh, you have the opportunity to buy single copies with us, which is something that we changed, uh, not too long ago, because we kept hearing from conversations that we were having with teachers, libraries, et cetera, that, you know, sometimes we only want a single copy of you have a hole in our inner catalog or in our classroom, but we don't need multiple copies. And so that was a bit of a barrier for them. So, we did modify that along with dropping the a hundred, the minimum order from $250 to $100. Yeah. And on the, and on the, if you're, if you're, if you're at home and you're homeschooling and you're more of a retail customer, you're not necessarily a teacher-librarian. We do have a sister website called bookoutlet.com and that's a place where anyone can go and shop. You can buy, there's no minimums there and it's free shipping after $35 USD. So, if you're looking for great titles that are discounted, they're, they're a little more expensive on that site because you're not buying in volume and you're not buying at a wholesale price point, but there's two different channels there for, for people to access books at a really great price and a great selection.

Molly Ness:

And, um, I'm interested in the, we've talked a little bit about the quantity of books, but I'm interested in the quality of the books. I know you said these are not necessarily brand new. They, but they are, you know, they've been lightly handled and said, really, I'm also interested in the range of titles that you're featuring. So, when I think about, um, book retailers that are not necessarily, you know, Barnes and Noble or filling my Amazon wish list, um, I want, if I'm a teacher and or a parent, I want the current titles, I want the ones that are, um, featuring diverse characters and diverse authors. Um, talk to us about the range of selection that is available.

 

Book Depot:

Sure. So first and foremost, in terms of, um, the, just the amount of, of titles that we have inventory it's ever-changing, it's dynamic, it's always incoming and outgoing. Um, we don't necessarily carry anything in stock, like on a regular basis. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don't when it comes to remainders, um, we're dealing with, uh, excess stock that publishers did not sell through or the overprinted. And we have contracts with them, slew of them, the top publishers, most of them in the world. So, we're accessing, uh, publications that are maybe six to 18 months from publication date. So, it's not from us stuff. It's not brand-new stuff that this is, these are titles that are very high quality that are very popular. And especially as you know Molly, when it comes to kids' books, some of those stand the test of time, right? These are, these are some of the things that are just available. Kids still read them. They still love them. Berenstain Bears. There's all kinds of these titles that keep coming back and re-circulating, and they never grow old on us. But when it comes to the topic of diversity and having, you know, just a real broad selection of different, uh, uh, different authors and different subjects, uh, if you had dive into our website a little bit, there's some great selection there that I think people would really appreciate these things keep you very helpful, especially considering what's going on right now.

 

Molly Ness:

Well, I know that, um, a question that I'm asked all the time as a teacher educator is for those starting out in their classrooms or those changing grades, or really anybody who is struggling with filling a library, like how do I do this? Do I do yard sales? Do I go to Goodwill? What do I do? And, um, I'm thrilled to be able to add to the repertoire of books of, of places to get books that are current and relevant and in good shape. And, um, most importantly appealing to kids today. Um, so thank you for your work in that. And then I'm wondering if you can just leave us with one sort of overarching thought how the work of Book Depot is, um, working to end book deserts. How does it align? How does your philosophy and approach align with the work that so many of us are doing today to increase book access and promote reading culture, especially in the time of, um, the COVID pandemic?

Book Depot:

Yeah, so being an online bookseller is, is something that has really helped us help people at home. I, in two ways on our bookoutlet.com website, we can access, help people access great quality books for less. So if you don't have a huge book budget and you really need resources, great opportunity to reach out and get some great titles there. But on the institutional front, we realized right away, as soon as COVID hit, something's going to change here. And especially with the school closures and the library closure started to happen. Then we started reaching out to our partners and saying, look, how can we adapt? How can we pivot to better help to help you in your mission? Because your mission has now changed. And so we have to change and adapt as well for that. So, what we did was we started working with them. We offered a COVID relief program. That's still running until June 30. So we have a 10% off coupon on bookdepot.com right now, uh, you can find that on our website. Um, and that was the help against stretch foot bucket stretch the book budgets for people who maybe decided, and when a lot of them did that, we're not going to bring in inventory right now. We're not going to bring in books and loan them because we can't handle that process cleanliness and everything else. So, we'll do giveaways instead. And so what we found was a lot of schools and libraries were working from home teachers and librarians. And so they wanted to know if books could be ordered still and shipped to their residential addresses, where they could process them and then get them in the hands of the redistribution programs, such as meal programs and the like that I'm sure you will hear. So that was the model that we started working with that seemed to fit with our customers and with our partners. And so, you know, we worked together, we modified it a little bit and, um, you know, we came up with some great success stories. There's, there's one that I'll, I'll share with you if you don't mind. Um, it's a, it's a, it's just an example. We had a school in Hartford, uh, that reached out and they ordered 224 books from us that worked out to less than $2.25 cents a book delivered into Connecticut. And they distributed that, uh, through a meal program and they loved it and they went out and they recruited other four or five schools to come on board and said, hey, listen, we got to work together with the Book Depot and try and get it. So to answer the big question of how the overarching question of how are we, what are we doing to align ourselves within book deserts? At the end of the day, it comes down to, we work really hard to generate, uh, to, to develop relationships, to understand the needs of our readers out there, uh, not just our customers, but their customers or their patrons or those that they serve. And then on top of that, it's, we work really hard to continuously keep our prices the lowest in the remainder so that the book budget is hopefully not as big an issue as it, as it, as it is for everyone. And, uh, in our selection, diversity of our books also, I think helps get the right books in the right hands of the right people.

 

Molly Ness:

And finally, I checked back in with United Through Reading, one of my favorite organizations that enables deployed parents to read aloud to their children back home. Like everyone United Through Reading has creatively tackled the challenges of COVID and worked to connect military families through reading.

 

United Through Reading:

It's a very interesting time to be a nonprofit that primarily and historically has delivered in-person services to folks, right. But we are very blessed that United Through Reading that we actually launched an app last year, you know, and, uh, with our goal of really connecting military families through the magic of reading, we knew that we wanted our services to be more accessible and that the app was a way to go. Um, and, and in particular, we had received some advice, um, from a consulting firm that had done some pro bono work for us. But if you want to grow, uh, you need to be sort of more in the digital space. Uh, so we developed our app, um, it allows service members to record themselves reading a story to their loved one. Um, it's secure. We sort of, you know, abided by the DOD regulations with regards to online security, which sometimes can be, um, a little bit burdensome, but it was worth it for us to make sure that we had a secure place for families to go. Um, and like I said, launched last year and just really tried to sort of organically grow it, but really focused on our, um, in-person- in-person events as, uh, as the primary delivery method. So, you know, fast forward to March of this year, when we like many across the country started experiencing, um, our new social distance reality, we actually had a ready to go method to keep folks connected in light of that distance with our app

 

Molly Ness:

Can you tell a little bit more about what the app and what it affords for parents who are deployed as well as the people back home?

 

United Through Reading:

You know, our focus has been for 30 years are very simple, um, method, right? A parent records, a story, they send the recording and the book to the child. The child's able to view that over and over and over again. Um, what are the only thing that's changed, right, is the technology around it. And so, what our app does is a service member opens it up. They're usually sitting with the book that they're reading, and they go through the book using their device as a recording method and read the book to the child, all the interactions that you want, all of the, you know, facial expressions, that's really important to us. It's not just an audio recording. Um, and then once they finished with that video, it gets sent to, uh, it gets sent to another adult, of course, who then delivers that to the child through another device at the other end. Um, you can take a picture of the book and put it, uh, in the video or in the, in your files so that you have a library of stories. Um, you can provide a description, but it's very, it's very simple. Um, when, once we were confronted with, uh, you know, COVID-19 and quarantine, and, and particularly with some of the challenges that the military community has faced around, uh, mandatory quarantine of service members, um, it was hard for folks that would normally have access to United Through Reading to deliver those stories to their families. So, for example, uh, the Teddy Roosevelt is an aircraft carrier that was, um, stuck in Guam for quite some time with, um, some sailors who had become infected by COVID-19. Um, there is a United Through Reading story station, a board that aircraft carrier, so that sailors can go and record a book and send the book and the recording to their child. Of course, during this time of quarantine, they didn't have access to that. And even now that the Teddy Roosevelt is underway, um, they aren't really allowing that sort of, uh, intermingling, if you will, um, really forcing folks to stay socially distanced, even though they're on an aircraft carrier, which I can't even imagine how challenging that is. Um, we were able to, uh, partner with some publishers who gave us some PDF books that allowed for those service members to use our app and record stories on their own in their rooms, uh, without having to find their way to a physical book. Um, that's it, that's a temporary measure. Um, it's very limited in right now, but something that we are working toward is, uh, how we deliver, how we make it easier for service members to record, even when they don't have access to that physical book. Um, and that's, that's a challenge that we faced in the COVID-19 era. Um, but it's one that we're meeting head-on, we're actually working to upgrade our app now, um, to, to do exactly that.

Molly Ness:

Very interesting modification, because I know previously on at these base camps or these aircraft carriers, or what have you, they're used to sort of be like a recording studio, but now of course, with the, um, just social distancing, you can't really have that, that place where people are coming in and maintaining space and such to make that happen. So not only are you sort of recreating the physical space where parents are recording, but also rethinking access through texts with, um, PDFs given by publishers and such.

 

United Through Reading:

Absolutely. And I will say we are still sending the physical book to the child, um, and it would still be our preference that someone that a parent, uh, an adult of loved one read the actual physical book, just because the experience is different than when you read an e-book. Um, and, but, you know, it's a core part of our values to get physical books into the hands of kids, military kids in particular. And so that will always be true. So, we're really only delivering the e-book to the service member for the purposes of reading, um, to really just streamline the process. And what we're also working toward in our app is once that service member reads that story e-book version, um, and sends that video to the child, the physical book will automatically be sent to the child as well.

 

Molly Ness:

And what has the response been for people who have been using the app? For parents back home? For, um, deployed parents?

 

United Through Reading:

It's been, it's been really great, you know, um, in particular, we had a beneficiary who, uh, you know, three kids, uh, mom and dad- dad's in the Navy. Um, he was going out for some training exercises. They knew that he was leaving, he'd be gone for about a month or so. Um, so not a full deployment, but still a separation. And once, um, once new guidelines came out, they realized very quickly realized that he was going to have to go about three weeks early because he was going to be required to quarantine before the ship actually went out to sea. So, um, they had about 24 hours’ notice before that quarantine started. And, uh, dad borrowed a book, a chapter book, um, and bought the other, you know, got the other version of the chapter books sent to his son. And he read every night chapter by chapter the book while he was in quarantine to keep those connections alive. Um, so we know that folks are still benefiting from the magic of reading through United Through Reading that the sailors on the tr in particular had, you know, expressed great excitement about the idea of the PDF books. Um, we're still working through how many folks have been able to utilize those at this point, cause it's a little early, um, but really, really good reactions. Um, and our partner who gave us those, uh, PDF books, Elva Resa Publishing, um, strong supporters of military families have a bunch of books specific for military families. So, we're really grateful for that partnership with them to make this happen for folks who are affected in this way.

 

Molly Ness:

Well, we so appreciate hearing about how you've kept up with the needs of your families that you're serving. Um, obviously us back home in the States, aren't, I actually hadn't even really thought through how social distancing and quarantining in this whole pandemic is impacting, um, our deployed, um, parents. So, I love your words about the magic of reading and I love that you are modifying and keeping the magic of reading still going under these hard times. Um, we will direct listeners to find out more about United Through Reading, through our website endbookdeserts.com. Um, I hope there's a little bit more information about that. Um, the app, so people can get, um, even more knowledge about how it works. My hunch is that there are going to be organizations that are interested in sort of taking it and modifying it for their work. So, um, I think we can all learn from your wisdom.

 

United Through Reading:

Absolutely. You know, we, especially in the times that we're in right now, uh, partnership and collaboration are so important to making, to make sure that, um, both our efforts are impacting the biggest number of people, but that we can enable others to as well. So we're always happy to have the conversation about how we can, we can build capacity and, uh, share our app and what we've learned through the process.

 

Molly Ness:

At the start of the pandemic, my personal and professional reading took a nosedive, maybe from exhaustion, maybe from inability to concentrate on anything other than the world situation. But I'm happy to say that these last few weeks have been an abundance of reading. So, it's time for today's related reading a book from my shelf, which I'm eager to share out with listeners. Today's book is titled, Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture, and Identity by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi. Like so many of us in the summer, 2020, I embarked on some reading around the Black Lives Matter movement. And what makes today's books so unique is that it is an exploration of race and America written by two young women. The authors challenged their own assumptions about race while encouraging all of us to do the same. The authors took a gap year before college and drove across the country to talk with young people about race and identity. Keep your eyes on these two young authors. They've got a bright future ahead of them, and they've already published a racial literacy textbook for educators, become Ted speakers, and founded an organization to help students and teachers talk about race and identity. Tell Me Who You Are is the perfect addition to bookshelves everywhere

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 for sound editing. Until the next episode, happy reading!