Open Books is a non-profit, volunteer-run bookstore. Proceeds from the sale of books and donations support the Prison Book Project, operating since 2000. The Prison Book Project currently sends around 6,000 books each year to indigent inmates in Florida prisons, the largest prison system in the country and one sorely lacking in-house book collections. The Prison Book Project currently serves approximately 1,800 inmates each year.
We provide free books to improve the lives of prisoners, to provide educational resources, and to help reduce the likelihood of their returning to the prison system. Our communities fare better when prisoners returning to society have had an opportunity to learn, grow, and mature as individuals. Books provide the inspiration and knowledge for that growth.
Each month we process around 150 inmate book requests at a cost of $525 for mailing. The book store operating costs (utilities, maintenance) run around $300, so we operate on a modest budget of around $800 – $1,000/month.
Prisoners simply have to send us a letter and we send them books. While the Open Books book store has a wide selection of new and used books, the selection that has been donated to the Prison Book Project is limited. We do our best to find something that fits the interests of the prisoner.
We’re a grass-roots project that really works!
The History of Open Books
Although Open Books has been in its present Guillemard St location since 2012, the history of the bookstore and the Prison Book Project goes back to 1999. That’s when a group of local activists started a radical info-shop in downtown Pensacola called the CORE House. CORE (Collective of Resource Empowerment) formed to work on a myriad of issues—specifically environmental problems, poverty, homelessness, and the prison industrial complex. The CORE House was the headquarters in which the collective worked. Within a short time, the CORE House also started its own lending library.
During its short life, CORE built a small but impressive library filled with books from all genres but specializing in political topics, zines, and alternative publications. When the CORE House closed in late 2000, the collective decided that the library be used to further the same goals as the group originally intended. One of the members suggested that CORE use its library to start a project that would send books to prisoners incarcerated in Florida. That way, the books would directly help many of the same people CORE was fighting for when they first got together. With the help of another prison book collective in Asheville, NC, the newly formed Prison Book Project in Pensacola received its first requests. The two first books that began this project were Louis L’Amour westerns, sent to a prisoner on death row. He has since died, but our project continues.
Originally housed in Old East Hill, the Prison Book Project eventually moved into the back offices of Subterranean Books, a beautiful little bookstore that opened in 1997 and lasted for more than a decade. When the store announced its closing, we were faced with the possibility of losing the prison book project. By procedures of the Department of Corrections, books sent to prisoners must be sent directly from a bookstore, so the collective voted to open its own retail bookstore. That way, we could not only receive & answer the requests for books, but also hopefully fund the project with the sales revenue.
So, in October 2007, in a small storefront in Pensacola’s west side, Open Books opened its own doors. Despite changes in the market that forced some of the corporate competition out of business, despite a major recession, and despite the lagging economy created by the BP Oil Spill, the bookstore continued to operate in that location until faced with a major hurdle: Four years into our own store, the building we rented was sold from under our shelves. Serendipitously, that same week, the Long Hollow Neighborhood Association approached us to bring our project into their neighborhood. With the support of the neighborhood, the Pensacola City Council, and many friends, Open Books re-opened on February 4th, 2012 in its location on Guillemard Street, across from a beautiful little park and surrounded by terrific neighbors. A month later, the Prison Book Project, located in the back room of the new location, sent out its first packages of the year.
The volunteers who keep the store and project running appreciate the support and generosity shown by many, in the form of books and monetary donations, time, and help. We are enjoying the new location and this newest chapter in the project’s ongoing story. We never expected, nor could have predicted, all of the turns taken since this project began. We look forward to many more years of serving the community—those free, and imprisoned.