This weekend I was relieved of my usual duties as News Editor and graced with the opportunity to cover an event for work; the grand re-opening of the Open Books bookstore in downtown Pensacola. When I arrived, pen in hand and camera safely tucked into my purse I thought I would just be spending another evening covering another current event downtown. To my pleasant surprise, the bookstore turned out to be much more than just a place that sells used books at a decent bargain. For those unfamiliar with the bookstore, Open Books is a non-for-profit bookstore that (after it pays the utilities) uses 100 percent of extra income to pay for the postage that sends books to inmates. Everyone who works there volunteers; no one is getting paid to donate time or books. To ensure that everything is done legally, invoices are written and sent along with the books to the prisons, with the total charge being $0.00 for the inmate receiving the package.
“All the money that we get from selling books, after expenses goes to inmates who request books,” Peter Stedman said, “We support Florida state prisons. Due to underfunding, prisoners who want to learn and better themselves have nothing to read. We have a single mission: get books into prisoner’s hands. Almost everyone either has family or knows someone who has a family member or friend in prison. In my opinion, they are the politically oppressed. They’re the lower class citizens. We’re trying to break the isolation.”
Along with improving lives through knowledge, Open Books has a very humane focus – to connect people who normally spend all of their time alone with a community that can provide them with a level of moral support.
“With people who are consistent, there’s a conversation – a relationship – that happens,” Ryan Galliford said when explaining the process of how inmates request books. Aside from providing a list of the texts desired, many prisoners exchange letters with volunteers at the bookstore. The letters told of everything from gratitude to the occasional love letter. “It’s human, ya know.” Stedman added with a chuckle.
After having a bowl of homemade soup and taking a quick tour through the bookstore, I was introduced to Michelle MacNeil. MacNeil is a member of the Long Hollow Neighborhood Association, the group that subleases the building where Open Books is located. The Neighborhood’s current vision is to bring vitality back to the area and give local artists and residents a safe place to go to attend a diverse and unique set of events in Pensacola.
“We feel like artists and musicians are often under-appreciated. Open books is a perfect opportunity to give people a place to go, work with the prison book outreach, and provides an organic way for diverse groups to collaborate and work together,” MacNeil said. “Our hope is that we can create a vibrant, art and music-centered district that is unique to Pensacola that would reach a diverse audience.”
Thomas Asmuth, an Assistant Professor of Digital Art at the University of West Florida, is also helping to bring fresh vision to the programs. He and his team’s vision is to see a “fraternity of diverse people who work together on art and music events”. They are working together to incorporate into a non-profit and form a community center that nurtures a growing community of innovators. “It’s a sort of self-sufficiency and an opportunity to share your expertise that has always drawn me to these types of movements. Being innovate socially, politically, and electronically,” Asmuth said.
For those interested in participating, Open Books meets the first Tuesday of every month at 6 p.m. The contact number is: (850)-453-6774. “For a lot of people, we’re the only contact they have on the planet,” Scott Satterwhite said when speaking on the importance of programs like Open Books. Besides doing a good thing for people who need help, the program also is unifying the community and bring people from diverse backgrounds together.
Photo Credit: Adriana Dueck