2450 N. Meridian Street Indianapolis, IN 46208
For non-profits to survive, they must innovate and create sustainable funding streams. “As an organization as a whole, we rely too heavily on grants and individual donors. One year it’s there, one year it’s not,” said Travis DiNicola executive director of Indy Reads. As not-for-profit organization Indy Reads uses volunteers to provide basic literacy tutoring to illiterate and semi-literate adults. In Marion County, an estimated 100,000 adults read at the lowest level of literacy. Programs include one-on-one tutoring, small group sessions, English as a second language instruction, and “Literacy Labs” at neighborhood centers are provided by Indy Reads.
In July 2012, Indy Reads Books opened downtown on Massachusetts Avenue where all sales go back to Indy Reads. It’s the only bookstore on The Cultural Trail. Since then, Indy Reads Books has hosted over 140 events, most of which are free and open to the public. Each event has about one-third of attendees stopping in for their first time. “The long term goal for the store is that it will be able to generate income that then can go back to support Indy Reads and be a reliable income on a regular basis,” said DiNicola.
Opening a brick and mortar bookstore isn’t typically a successful business model, but they are able to cut costs by having only two paid staff members and about 50 regular volunteers. Approximately 95 percent of inventory is donated. “There is something people still love about visiting a physical bookstore,” says DiNicola. Since inventory is free, books are fairly inexpensive at $3-$8 apiece. By shopping at the store, customers are supporting Indy Reads, which adds to the cause marketing effort. People can order books online through Indy Reads Books’ website, and the organization collects a percentage of sales. “We are able to compete in some ways, even though certainly most book sales occur through online sales,” said DiNicola. Starting this summer, they will also be selling e-books from their website.
The bookstore has really become an arts and cultural venue. There is enough space to create a stage and have comfortable seating for 50-70 people. The events hosted include: author readings, play readings, musical events, children reading times, lectures, and workshops. Local artist Wug Laku will be curating a new show of local artists every six to eight weeks, so the store will have a regular turnover of local art displayed. It is providing a venue for people who didn’t have a venue before, such as high school and college students, small local publishers, and self published authors. Indy Reads Books is truly a community store because it was created and is run with the help of volunteers.
Indy Reads programs attracted 359 volunteers already this year and the goal is to have 900 volunteers by the end of the year. The staff is very good at matching volunteers for jobs in terms of time, skills, and personality. All volunteers go through a two-hour orientation, which is offered at least every other week. At the orientation volunteers, will meet an Indy Reads student and staff members and get a realistic overview of volunteer expectations, which include training and volunteering time commitments. Most volunteers stay an average of two years.
Indy Reads Books has become the public face of the organization and has become their greatest marketing tool. Because the store welcomes so many people to host events in the store, it brings in more people and drives sales. The training and support given to volunteers keeps them coming back and keeps Indy Reads’ costs low. They have figured out how to bring the community together for cultural events and manage skilled volunteers, who are then most importantly able to make an impact on individuals’ lives.