A Random Act of Reddit

tl;dr: Users of Reddit.com funded the purchase of 2,100 children’s books for a “free bookstore” I started at my daughter’s elementary school. Students are motivated in their classwork by earning a visit to choose a free book and struggling students receive special encouragement. Reddit’s generosity arrived at a pivotal time as the bookstore idea was coming together.


  1. More info about the bookstore (the original blog post)
  2. Photo gallery of the new bookstore (imgur)
  3. Photos of third graders on their first visit (school site)
  4. Photo of first grade boys reading during a sunny lunch recess! (school site)
  5. Map of Reddit donors

Photo of 2,100 books displayed in stacks on a carpet.

That’s what 2,100 donated children’s books look like. They were purchased courtesy of random strangers on Reddit.com for a “free bookstore” at my daughter’s elementary school. This post is for the donors. See close-up images (left, and right).

Photo of 2,100 books boxed up in plastic crates.

(Above, the same books before their unboxing.)

The bookstore idea began in April 2010 when I started scrounging books from yard sales for 25 cents each. How hard could it be to build a free bookstore? I was naive.

In October, Redditor “atomofconsumption” submitted my original blog post about the still-forming bookstore to Reddit.com. In the ensuing discussion, Redditor “bbibber” asked, “Who does this [project] without leaving a Paypal donation button?”

Duh, me? I became aware at the tail-end of Reddit’s spotlight, raising $525 the 4 remaining hours before the link lost popularity. The smallest donation was $1, the biggest $100, and the average $10.

The Reddit Generosity Doubletake

The $525 was a BIG DEAL, and not just for the 2,100 books it would bring our students.

My bookstore proposal was not an easy sell to budget-conscious parents in our Parent-Teacher Organization. There were supporters, but some parents thought it couldn’t be created, or, that I would burn out and abandon the project. Funding discussions were contentious. There was… unhappiness.

Then random strangers on Reddit lauded this still hypothetical bookstore and they opened their hearts by way of their pocket books. It had to make a doubter wonder, “What does someone in Kobenhavn, Denmark see in my school that I do not?” (We’re located in a remote region of California.)

The donations reinvigorated me, letting me continue acquiring books while still preparing the physical bookstore. Any remaining doubts ended when the bookstore opened.

Grand Opening – How It Works

The free bookstore opened to one class in December and then school-wide in January 2011 (see photos of 3rd graders on the first visit — scroll the page). It is an academic and social incentive program where students earn books, and is also an encouragement program giving books to struggling students and to students who “don’t have many reading options at home.”

Teachers are given golden “book bucks” to use in incentive programs of their own design. Students in my daughter’s class, for example, earned a buck every time they completed a home reading log, about one free book each month. I also gave bucks to reading and math intervention teachers and reading volunteers to encourage struggling students. Our librarian did whole-class giveaways for various contests.

Image of the golden book buck students receive.

Above, a book buck (imagine it printed on orange-yellow paper, the size of a real dollar bill) bears the face of the teacher who issued it. The design drew inspiration from US currency, with the border coming from Monopoly money. A vintage horseshoe came from a clip-art repository.

The bookstore was open every Friday with parent volunteers at lunch recess for buck redemption, with a steady procession of students visiting. (And it’ll continue to be open, see ‘The Future’ below.)

In March, the 2,100 Reddit books were finally all purchased, just in time to begin restocking the shelves. That averages out to 100 books found/bought per week via 4 to 10 hours of weekly scrounging.

Remodel after Three Months

Our local Blockbuster video store closed due to bankruptcy, coinciding with a perfectly timed local grant (we were awarded it the very next week). In the first week of April, volunteers moved in new shelves and set the room back up again. It’s like a video store, but with books instead of movies. (Our “old” used shelves had numerous problems, such as younger students leaning onto slanted frames not designed to hold their weight. They’ve since been donated to upper-grade teachers and a nonprofit thrift store.)

Photo of parent volunteers assembling the new bookshelves.

Seen above, parent volunteers assemble the shelves. My floor plan mock-up was abandoned in the first hour. We rearranged that room several times before we found the optimal configuration.

A view of the front area of the bookstore with a carpet where students gather.

Above, the carpet is a gathering area when an entire class visits. The room is also used by a part-time reading intervention specialist and other specialists during the week at a table (not pictured, out of view).

A panoramic view of the bookstore aisles

  1. Photos of the “old” bookstore can be seen in my original blog post. It has all but a couple shelves that were donated after the post was written.
  2. Gallery of new bookstore images

Bookstore Highlights (the feel-good moments)

  1. Kids running excitedly across the courtyard toward you at lunch recess, clutching their gold book bucks.
  2. Having a student ask, “What can I buy with this (book buck)?” and watching their eyes open wide as you say, “You can buy any book in the bookstore.”
  3. A student asking, “Do you have a book about …” and you can lead them to exactly the book they’re looking for. A book about dragonflies? About golden retrievers? Captain Underpants, no the one with the green cover? Yep, we have those.
  4. A student choosing a book about X and then having other students ask for X for weeks afterward. It means kids are talking about books with each other!
  5. Learning that a second grade classroom had an average 4 students completing their homework, but once book bucks were introduced as an incentive, the statistics reversed, with almost everyone returning their homework every week.
  6. Having random students stop you in the hallway to thank you.
  7. Kids, who are not readers, finding books that get them excited, be it a Star Wars picture book or Pokemon or sharks or whatever.
  8. Watching a child with his nose buried in a book walking through a crowded playground.

Donor Map

A map pinpointing the locations of donors around the world. Most are concentrated in North America. Some come from the United Kingdom, one from Denmark and one from Australia. Click to use interactive map.

Here’s a map pinpointing the hometowns of the donors. I’ll display a real map in the bookstore when the school reopens in September.

Book Donors

Redditor and author Dirk Flinthart donated six autographed copies of a recently published anthology for children featuring Australian science fiction authors. Worlds Next Door includes Dirk’s story, The Best Dog in the World. It’s our only true scifi book in the room, so I was stoked when a student asked me, “Do you have any science fiction?” I love the moment you can thrill a student. Thanks!

Redditor kry0s bought us 13 of his/her favorite books from childhood (The BFG, Matilda, Esio Trot, The Twits, George’s Marvelous Medicine, The Witches (a Roald Dahl 6 title boxed set), Thoroughbred #1, #2 & #3, The Black Stallion, Black Beauty, A Wrinkle in Time, and Good Night Mr. Tom. It’s a wonderful message to share with the students — that years from now they will remember and still cherish the books they are reading today.

And make no mistake, when school resumes in September, to build excitement each class will tour the bookstore, and students will hear the stories of our donors.

Redditor tron774 announced the start of his book giveaway blog, Breadline Books, in a Reddit post. The bookstore was the first winner with a new copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Thanks!

Redditor davidpm saved up 70 free books through the book sharing site BookMooch, so he gave a free book to 70 Redditors. I picked out Charlotte’s Web. Thanks!

Redditor Teyzo was my secret book Santa in a book-themed gift exchange at RedditGifts.com. I requested a book for the bookstore and he came through with a new copy of the lusciously adorned Dragonology (which has lots of fold-outs, letters in envelopes, gorgeous artwork and a dragon eye gem embedded on the inside cover).

The Future

Obviously, funding will be an ongoing issue. I’m buying books, supplies and some shelving gear this summer using money raised from a jam fundraiser organized by our school librarian. I’m hoping the bookstore idea, coupled with the notion that books are acquired at no more than 25 cents a title, is compelling and donors will continue to come forward.

If anyone would like to make a donation, here is a PayPal link (a PayPal account is not required). It goes to our Morris Parent Teacher Organization, an 501(c)(3) nonprofit. I don’t get compensated for time or travel, so aside from a small transaction fee PayPal charges, every 25 cents will buy a book. Yep, that means $10 puts books into the hands of 40 students.

For those looking for specifics, our school is Morris Elementary in McKinleyville, California. I don’t reproduce students photos here, but you can see photos of the first bookstore visit (scroll the whole page) and a readers-on-a-bench photo at the school news website I maintain. We’re a Title 1 school, but we work our assess off not to lack enrichment opportunities because of it, and so I thank you for helping make this project possible.

New and used books can also be directly donated and shipped to the school. E-mail me for shipping details (via the e-mail address found in the upper right-hand corner of this page).

Reddit played a big part in getting kids excited about reading, an excitement that is also improving their academic performance. Thank you again to the Redditors who placed their faith in this idea. I’m going to work very hard to see that the free bookstore endures.


12 Responses to “A Random Act of Reddit”

  1. Dirk Flinthart says:

    You’re more than welcome. I wish every school had someone like you.

    August 2nd, 2011 at 4:48 pm

  2. Phil says:

    You’re awesome, AJ. Such an awesome thing. Clearly a ton of work — and awesome that you pressed through the…unhappiness.

    Good work!

    August 2nd, 2011 at 9:12 pm

  3. Deanna says:

    It’s people like you that enrich the lives of all of our children. Thank you.

    August 3rd, 2011 at 5:25 am

  4. Dani says:

    What a spectacular accomplishment! I’ve enjoyed hearing about your progress and I’m excited to see that it’s going well. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to watch the joy that a few books can bring. :)

    August 3rd, 2011 at 6:52 am

  5. Tracey says:

    We just cleaned out all of my 16 year olds bookshelves and have so many we could donate (perhaps they would be too old for the group you’re targeting) — can we send the books themselves?

    August 3rd, 2011 at 9:52 am

  6. Laurel says:

    Is there any way to donate books to the store as well as money?

    August 3rd, 2011 at 2:15 pm

  7. AJ says:

    Thank you, all.

    And yes, books can be directly donated, just e-mail me for the shipping details. I’ve e-mailed Laurel and Tracey.

    August 3rd, 2011 at 4:27 pm

  8. Lindsey says:

    How awesome!

    My daughter will be attending Morris next year. I am happy that we live right around the corner from such a quality school! I went to Morris some twenty-plus years ago. Mrs. O’Gara was my first-grade teacher and had a direct influence on my love of reading. Glad to see she’s still involved!

    August 20th, 2011 at 8:50 pm

  9. AJ says:

    Lindsey, you’ll be happy to know Penne (O’Gara) is still around.. retired, but on campus every week as a reading volunteer, and was a big bookstore supporter from the outset. She’s there at lunch each time the bookstore is open, helping kids in the bookstore. She’s not shown in the photo, but she and her husband even helped me move (just the three of us) most of the shelving the day before the new room was arranged. Join our parent-teacher group and you’re guaranteed to see her at least once a month!

    August 21st, 2011 at 11:43 am

  10. Lindsey says:

    I will definitely be joining the parent-teacher group, for sure! :D

    August 21st, 2011 at 6:04 pm

  11. KINGDADS says:

    Great to see and we need to get more books at my kids school.

    August 22nd, 2011 at 7:15 pm

  12. Maytal says:

    Way to go. Sometimes you need to work hard inorder to help others. Fantastic.

    September 19th, 2011 at 6:53 am