B is for Books opened last week, Mary Denison’s hope was that it fosters early literacy as much as it creates a certain feeling.
“I remember the feeling you had when you were a kid, and your parents said, ‘You get three books at Barnes and Noble or whatever bookstore … Let’s go, and you can pick any books you want,’” Dennison tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “Not every child gets that experience. I want every kid to have that feeling they [can] come to [the bookstore] and they can pick any book.”
B is for Books, the latest project from Reading Ready Pittsburgh, an early literacy nonprofit where Denison serves as executive director, does just that. The new bookstore in Homestead invites children and their families to come in, peruse the shelves, and select three books to take home “absolutely 100 percent free.”
“We believe that every child and their family should have easy access to high-quality reading material with as few barriers as possible,” Reading Ready Pittsburgh’s website states.
On Sat., Feb. 17 from 12 to 3 p.m., B is for Books is hosting a family open house where attendees can “go shopping” and receive free books, a tote bag, and a T-shirt. The all-ages celebration also includes snacks and crafts.
B is for Books realized a longtime dream for Denison, who began her career as a teacher and doctoral school psychologist. Working with students for 40 years, she assessed young children who had difficulty reading, and who often saw her repeatedly.
“My reading at the time was that there were real things that could have been done prior to [those] children entering kindergarten that may have made a big difference,” Denison says. “My thought was, why aren’t we being more proactive?”
Inspired by other early literacy organizations like the former Pittsburgh nonprofit Beginning with Books, Denison retired, founding Reading Ready Pittsburgh in 2018. Early literacy refers to the youngest readers, aged zero to five, and promoting it has been shown to build confidence, develop skills needed to comprehend longer texts, and prepare future students for school and academic success.
Through grant funding from Allegheny County’s Department of Children Initiatives, which currently has a designated Birth to Five effort, Reading Ready Pittsburgh launched an early literacy hub in the Monongahela Valley, where it also maintains 12 little giveaway libraries. Other projects include installing Dolly Parton's Imagination Library in Pittsburgh — the country music star’s beloved “book gifting” program mails books to children through age five — a birthday book gifting program, and a book bag rotation program called Raising a Reader.
B is for Books establishes a more permanent space for Reading Ready Pittsburgh, also doubling as a resource center for early childhood educators. For its opening on Feb. 1, the free bookstore hosted an open house for about 40 educators, kicking off a new initiative that offers new and gently used books to teachers for classroom use (interested educators can request free books online). The staff were also excited to see 26 families stop by and pick out books.
“We opened at 10 [a.m.], and there was a family in here at 10:05,” outreach coordinator Mark Sepe tells City Paper.
Renovated from a vacant building and former hardware store on Homestead’s Eighth Ave., the colorful new bookstore also offers a nook for story time with a hand-painted mural, canopy, beanbag chairs, and tree-stump pillows. Among the hundreds of books currently available, adult readers might recognize old favorites like Goodnight Moon and Caldecott Medal winner Kitten's First Full Moon — there’s even a classics shelf that has The Hardy Boys. The extensive inventory comes courtesy of donations from families, libraries, schools, book drives, local bookstores, and some grant funds.
Reading Ready Pittsburgh even received a donation inquiry from Lois Lowry, award-winning young adult author of The Giver and Number the Stars.
Denison emphasizes there’s something for everyone, particularly with the help of the organization’s in-house librarian Kathy Koltas.
“The entire family can be enriched by what we offer,” Denison says.
She points out that another important component of boosting early literacy involves building a “home library,” where children can see books on the shelf. In turn, more books at home encourages reading to children more frequently and cultivating an environment where young readers can build awareness of “what a book is … and think of it as a joyful activity, instead of just a workspace.”
For Reading Ready Pittsburgh, joy and care stay at the center of the new bookstore’s mission.
Sepe was heartened by a social media post praising B is for Books as “an important resource in a world that is becoming more and more expensive.”
“For me, it’s very progressive,” he says. “We should be teaching kids it's not all about the ‘earn money, spend money' thing. There is mutual aid out there. There are things out there for you because we love you and we care about you. And this is one of those things.”