- Stephen Simonetto
- Travis DiNicola (left) and Alex Mattingly of Indy Reads Books, along with a faux dog provided by City Dogs, hang out on the Cultural Trail in front of their soon-to-open store.
Indy Reads is a long-standing nonprofit organization dedicated to helping adults learn to read. The lack of literacy skills among adults is a massive problem in central Indiana.
This means that they are unemployable for most jobs, since you have to be able to read at an eighth grade level to qualify for a GED, the equivalent of a high school diploma.
"Illiteracy is a spectrum in terms of skills," DiNicola says. "The best information that we have is that approximately 6 to 7 percent of adults 18 and older within central Indiana have no literacy skills whatsoever."
Indy Reads trains volunteers to tutor adults who come forward to improve their literacy skills. Over the years, Indy Reads has produced a number of programs, from spelling bees to scavenger hunts, in an effort to help people better understand the dimensions of adult illiteracy and to raise the funds needed to address the issue.
Indy Reads Books is the organization's latest - and most ambitious - venture, one that literally places Indy Reads on the city's map. It promises to be a full-fledged used bookstore, a shop with a large inventory of books in all categories.
DiNicola believes Indy Reads Books has the potential to accomplish several overlapping goals. The store will not only provide Indy Reads with a visible presence in a desirable location - on Mass Ave, hard by the Cultural Trail - but it will also offer a range of adult and children's programs, as well as tutoring for adult learners.
DiNicola foresees the shop making a significant contribution to Indy Reads' revenue stream: "We want to make sure people understand that they're not just buying a great book at a good price, they're actually helping to support this organization. We want to use this as an outreach tool."
But the potential for Indy Reads Books doesn't stop there. When Borders Books closed its Washington Street store last year, downtown Indianapolis lost its only destination book retailer. DiNicola and Indy Reads Books's manager, Alex Mattingly, hope the new store will begin to fill this void.
Raising money - and awareness
"A bookstore can be the heart of a community," DiNicola says. He speaks from experience. When he was in college, and then a grad student, at Penn State University, DiNicola worked at Svoboda's, an independent bookstore operated by its namesake, Michael Svoboda.
"It was the intellectual core of Penn State when I was there," DiNicola recalls. Svoboda's hosted readings, book clubs and a wide range of arts and cultural events.
"He used it as a way to bring people together," DiNicola says. "That store was a big part of my education and growing up."
DiNicola was accustomed to seeking out bookstores wherever he traveled. He believes that one measure of a city is the quality of its places to buy books. So, 15 years ago, when he moved to Indianapolis, DiNicola was dismayed to find his new home had the fewest number of bookstores for a city its size in America.
DiNicola says he started percolating the idea of incorporating a bookstore into Indy Reads' mission almost three years ago. His thinking accelerated when he attended a literacy conference in Chicago and witnessed a presentation by an adult literacy group from Medina, Ohio, who saved their organization by starting a bookstore when their other sources of funding dried up.
"They now have three bookstores and pretty much their entire budget comes from the bookstores," DiNicola says. "I was really inspired by them."
Then, in 2010, DiNicola ran into Margot Lacy Eccles at the annual Start With Art luncheon. He shared his idea, which she liked, particularly as it might relate to the new Cultural Trail. Eccles championed the bookstore concept with the Indy Reads board, backing up her enthusiasm with $25,000 in seed money. Her gift was eventually joined by grants from the Efroymson Family Fund, the Glick Fund and Giving Sum, enabling Indy Reads Books to open with backing totaling $150,000.
"The plan," he says, "has always been to have a bookstore with an inventory that was mainly used and donated books, mainly volunteers (with some paid staff) to keep expenses low, and tie it to a cause: Indy Reads. It's a way to not just raise money, but raise awareness."