Why encouraging literacy should be part of your business plan


President Obama at the White House Easter Egg roll, improving your business. Yes, YOUR business.

Less than half of children under five years of age in the US are read to everyday.  That more than anything helps cement a love of reading and prepare kids for school.  Even babies and toddler benefit from being read to.  Studies show that two year olds that are read to everyday have larger vocabularies, more developed cognitive skills, and better language comprehension skills than those that are not read to.  And that’s in kids that are only semi-verbal!

And the problems pile up over the years, resulting in kids falling farther behind with each grade.  These problems persist for a lifetime and cost the government (and taxpayers) trillions of dollars.  In some states they use the third grade reading proficiency scores to estimate future prison need.  Why?  85% of prison inmates cannot read proficiently. Simply increasing the graduation rate by 5% would save the US $5 BILLION annually in prison related costs.

Every 26 seconds, a kid drops out of school in the US.  Over their lifetime, each high school drop out costs the US government roughly$260,000.   In adults, 43% of people that are not proficient readers live in poverty.  Of those that are proficient readers, a mere 4% live in poverty.  Over the course of their lives, those with lowest literacy rates cost the government four times as much in health care costs as the most proficient readers. Annually an additional $73 BILLION is spent on health care for those with low reading proficiency due to low literacy skills in the form of longer hospital stays, emergency room visits, more doctor visits, medication errors, and increased medication. US businesses spend $60 billion annually on remedial training, mostly on reading skills.

One in seven adults in the US can not read this post, let alone anything complicated like list of side effects on medication or the fine print on a loan application.

What does all this have to do with bookstores?  The key to literacy is access to books.   In low income areas, 80% of preschool and afterschool programs have NO age appropriate books for kids!  In middle class neighborhoods, there’s roughly one age appropriate book per 13 kids between the library and private holdings.  In low income neighborhoods, the ratios is 300 to 1.

A bookstore by its mere existence improves access to books for all people in a community.  Even more than actually selling books,  a used bookstore is a major book distributor to those that cannot afford to buy books.  If you operate a used bookstore, you probably receive multiple calls per week about “will you just TAKE my books? I don’t want to throw them out!”  A used bookstore serves as a collection and redistribution point for books of all types.  Books that would never sell in the store and sell for pennies online often make it into boxes destined for prisons, schools, homeless shelters, literacy programs, and other places in desperate need of books. Even if you make faces at having a box of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books left on your doorstep, once they’re sent off to a new home at a school or prison, they can be a godsend.

Additionally, having various programs at the store can help boost literacy.  Story hour helps kids learn to love reading.  Even if they buy nothing that day, that can help boost literacy in your community which saves your business money (in the form of lower property taxes) in the long term and increases the market for books.

Obviously making kids books affordable and available has the biggest impact because of the ripple effect over time.  Yet many used bookstores don’t accept children’s books.  This is because they’re often hard to shelve, often are in terrible condition when the arrive, and often don’t fit the focus of the store.  (and that totally ignores the issue of CPSIA, another major problem) Where do those books go?  Some do get donated to places that need them, but even more end up thrown out.  If you have a store, take them.  Even if you give no credit or pay nothing for them, even if you don’t have space to put them on the shelves, many people just want to pass them on to someone.  You can find them a good home with a group that truly will put them to good use… and remember your largesse. (and may be tax deductible too!)

While giving away books does not seem like it really helps your bottom line,  that is because it has little to no visible impact when you focus on monthly or quarterly sales.  However, over years or decades, it ensures there’s an ever growing market for your product.  If you’re writing a ten year business plan, donations of books, services, or just plain money to local programs that increase the literacy rate should be part of that plan.  Even if you allocate no money to it, as you are simply redistibuting overstock, simply making the committment to give away X number of books per year and hold Y number of story hours, it will make a huge difference in the long term viability of your business.

Now obviously this applies most directly to brick and mortar stores, but online only places can play their part as well.  When you’re scouting books, consider buying some collections at a flat rate to take it ALL, even what you consider junk.  You may well be able to get a better price by agreeing to take it ALL than picking and choosing the few volumes you want.  Bundle up the rest and donate.

Schools and literacy focused programs are the obvious place to start, but adults need books too!  Improving adult literacy improves the outcome for their kids too.  Places like the local social services office, prisons, hospitals, rehab facilities, homeless shelters, and domestic violence shelters can all make use of these.  In many cases, these are places with captive audiences that would never read for pleasure on their own (or could never afford to spend money on books)… but give them a book to read while waiting and they just may find it’s fun.  Or may spend that hour in line sitting and reading to their kids.

If you’re willing to pay for postage and want to do something beyond the local area, sending books to military bases overseas is also an excellent option. A box of books can make a soldier’s day. They’ll be shared around, passed from person to person and unit to unit. Some units in low-conflict areas may also hand out children’s books to the local kids. When eventually the unit moves out, they leave the majority of the books behind.  That dogeared, highlighted copy of a classic may be worth pennies stateside, but when left in a fa away land it may take an honored place in the local library’s English-language collection.

And all that eventually comes full circle.  While book people consider books a necessity, in many places they are a luxury.  By providing the books necessary to build an education upon, it increases the demand overall, worldwide.  Increased literacy decreases poverty… and so there’s money available to spend on books.  And lower taxes from increased literacy rates means more disposable income locally to spend on books…  And higher literacy rates translate to more kids learning to love to read and consider books a necessity, not a luxury… And on and on…

Make the commitment to give books, money, or time to the cause of building literacy locally and worldwide and help ensure a better business climate for yourself for years and decades to come.


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  • Thank you Nora,
    Another outstanding article!

    Coincidentally, we have just started implementing some programs to address some of the features discussed.

    Children’s books have long been a staple of our stores but it is true that that section requires more diligence than most – because we do let children browse on their own and we don’t usually have the time to train them … smile.

    Every once in a while I have caught one of our staff reading a book to a child – last night I had to tell her it was after closing hours because she and a child were enrapt in a book. The parents were browsing elsewhere in the store.

    As they were leaving the little boy said “I’ll put the book right here so we can find it again when I come back.” the boy was about 7 years old.

    It gave me the warm fuzzies when the lady mentioned it to me.

  • Wow. Awesome article. What a wake up call for so many of us. Even those of us who already care deeply about this issue. Thank you.

  • Libraries play the same role, it’s all about access. The second part is convincing people to read for fun. That’s the real key to literacy, not just functional, but fun.

    Great article!

  • It is so important to support literacy. It’s a cause that, like the “green” movement, impacts us all. Thank you for calling our attention to it.

    People are so busy these days, that taking time out to read on a regular basis has become a luxury for children and adults of every income level. There are many nonprofit organizations that are trying to spread the message that reading is an essential activity for people of every age. If more businesses and individuals find creative ways to support this cause, the world will be a much better place.

  • […] literacy should be part of your long term business plan for your bookstore, as I argued in an earlier post.  You create your future market by investing in the next generation of […]

  • Just to be clear, I’m very much in favor of early and sustained literacy, so I was sorely disappointed by this article – it was nothing but a bunch of arm waving. There was a complete lack of citable references to back up broad-based statements. For example, the author states, “In low income areas, 80% of preschool and afterschool programs have NO age appropriate books for kids!” Really? On what evidence did he make that conclusion? If I don’t know, I’m left wondering if there’s any credence to any of the statements he made, true or not.

    • I didn’t bother with in line citations or block quotes as this was not a scholarly article and it disrupted the flow of the argument. However, since you like citations, here they are.

      “80% of preschool and after-school programs serving low-income populations have no age-appropriate books for their children.”
      Neuman, Susan B., et al. Access for All: Closing the Book Gap for Children in Early Education. Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2001, p. 3.

      “A recent study shows that while in middle income neighborhoods the ratio of books per child is 13 to 1, in low-income neighborhoods, the ratio is 1 age-appropriate book for every 300 children.”
      Neuman, Susan B. and David K. Dickinson, ed. Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Volume 2. New York, NY: 2006, p. 31.

      “Among adults at the lowest level of literacy proficiency, 43% live in poverty. Among adults with strong literacy skills, only 4% live in poverty.”
      Reder, Stephen, ed. The State of Literacy in America. Washington, DC: US Department of Education, 1998, p.5.

      “The United States could save between $7.9 and $10.8 billion annually by improving educational attainment among all recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, food stamps, and housing assistance.”
      Garfinkel, I., Kelly, B., & Wilson, K. (2005). “Public assistance programs: How much could be saved with improved education?” Paper prepared for Social Costs of Inadequate Education symposium, Teachers College Columbia University, October 2005.

      “If the male graduation rate were increased by only 5 percent, the nation would see an annual savings of $4.9 billion in crime-related costs.”
      Alliance for Excellent Education. Saving futures, saving dollars: The impact of education on crime reduction and earnings. Washington, DC: 2006.

      “America could save more than $17 billion in Medicaid and expenditures for health care for the uninsured by graduating all students.”
      Alliance for Excellent Education. Healthier and wealthier: Decreasing health care costs by increasing educational attainment. Washington, DC: 2006.

      “A new study from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine shows that older people with inadequate health literacy had a 50 percent higher mortality rate over five years than people with adequate reading skills. Inadequate or low health literacy is defined as the inability to read and comprehend basic health-related materials such as prescription bottles, doctor appointment slips and hospital forms.”
      Northwestern University. “Low Literacy Equals Early Death Sentence.” ScienceDaily 26 July 2007. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/07/070723160224.htm

      “According to the National Academy on an Aging Society, 73 billion dollars is the estimated annual cost of low literacy skills in the form of longer hospital stays, emergency room visits, more doctor visits, and increased medication.”
      “Toward a Literate Nation”, Luis Herra, Public Libraries, Jan/Feb 2004. http://www.smcl.org/services/RAR/Statistics.html

      “Across the nation just under half of children between birth and five years (47.8%) are read to every day by their parents or other family members.”
      Russ S, Perez V, Garro N, Klass P, Kuo AA, Gershun M, Halfon N, Zuckerman B. Reading Across the Nation: A Chartbook (2007): Reach Out and Read National Center, Boston, MA.

      “By the age of 2, children who are read to regularly display greater language comprehension, larger vocabularies, and higher cognitive skills than their peers.”
      Raikes, H., Pan, B.A., Luze, G.J., Tamis-LeMonda, C.S., Brooks-Gunn, J., Constantine, J., Tarullo, L.B., Raikes, H.A., Rodriguez, E. (2006). “Mother-child book reading in low-income families: Correlates and outcomes during the first three years of life.” Child Development, 77(4).

      “The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study found that in the spring of 2000, the children who were read to at least three times a week by a family member were almost twice as likely to score in the top 25% in reading compared to children who were read to less than 3 times a week.”
      Denton, Kristen and Gerry West, Children’s Reading and Mathematics Achievement in Kindergarten and First Grade (PDF file), U.S. Department of Education, NCES, Washington, DC, 2002.

  • Wow, thanks, Nora!
    I thoroughly enjoyed this article!!
    Many years ago, I helped a college professor write a thesis on the cost of literacy to US Corporations. Your article was a great reminder that literacy starts at a young age.
    Thanks for all the references, too!!
    Simply great!!

  • Nora this was a great article! I don’t think people realize how important books really are untill they read an article like this. Follow our link to check out our cause.

  • Its really sad how businesses of all kinds which were working for welfare of the society have turned into money ravaging hooligans and have no shame for it… It is sad that our bookstores only stock books which are off interest to adults or children. I mean the hype that was created when Harry Potter series went up to shelves… Bookstores promoted no other intellectual books except for that. Not to say that books are wrong its the facility in which they are being sold are wrong. Their approach is wrong. Obviously people will be influenced by what is aggressively being sold to them rather than some book which simply sits on the shelf. Parents are also to be blamed because they second doubt purchasing certain books for themselves and for their kids. They usually think they aren’t getting their money’s worth if the story isn’t strong. Every book has something to give… some experience to share… We should be open to reading any kind of books rather than being influenced by people surrounding us and telling us which books to read

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