It wasn’t the corkboard feet high and feet wide full of inch by inch Polaroids that made me realize how many people volunteer at Open Books.
It was the coatrack.
The rack, one of the long ones usually seen at stores, bulged thick with coats, scarves, hats and parkas from the attendees of the non-profit bookstore’s volunteer thank you night and cookie contest.
To fill out a retail-sized coat rack on a partially attended volunteer night means there’s a lot of folks helping Open Books out.
The magical ladyfriend is one of them.
Since September, the lady who stole my fancy and one of my old hoodies has been volunteering for the ReadThenWrite program, going into a local middle school twice a week to tutor sixth- and seventh-graders on reading, storytelling and the book “Wonder” by R. J. Palacio.
ReadThenWrite is just one of several reading programs Open Books runs. Together, they serve more than 5,000 Chicago students each year. We learned that at the volunteer thank you night. We also learned that more than volunteers served more than 17,000 hours running those programs and the used bookstore that funds them.
Looking at that bulging coatrack, I’m inclined to agree.
Open Books’ space right by the Chicago Brown Line stop pulls off that neat trick of being cozy and spacious at the same time. It’s bright and peppy, with primary-colored shelves decked with little brass plaques you can have personalized for $100 a pop.
They have more than 50,000 used books in a place that feels homey. Like I said, neat trick.
There’s a breed of people who love wandering among books, who want to touch and smell them, who think Amazon is an abomination and who read over that “smell them” line without stopping because it made perfect sense.
There’s a breed of people who understand the joys of writing, of cracking directly into someone else’s brain in a way no other medium can. Everything else can be tinged by the wrong color paint, a cracked note in a bad recording, an off night at a show. Only reading puts the image right in your head, the closest connection possible between creator and audience.
I’ve worked at three different bookstores in my life. All three have since gone out of business, killed by online sales and people who don’t see the joy of happening across the exact book they didn’t know they were looking for. Bookstores used to come and go. Now they just go.
As we wandered through the cozy, spacious store, sipping beers and munching homemade cookies with dozens of volunteers, I knew that breed was still around.
Until I saw that coatrack, I didn’t know how damn many of us there still are.