Bright Spots are written and produced by the Campaign to showcase the work in Grade-Level Reading communities to make progress on school readiness, school attendance and summer learning by 2016. Continue reading below or download a PDF version.

Young children who get restless when they’re at a Richmond, California, laundromat with their families have an unusual option. They can browse through the shelves of a bookcase near the washers and dryers, pick out a book to read and take it home.

“The books tend to fly off the shelves, especially at the laundromat. The kids can’t wait,” says Robin Wilson of West County Reads, a community collaborative working to increase early literacy in western Contra Costa County, including the Bay Area grade-level reading community of Richmond.

West County Reads collects and distributes about 10,000 books a year at local community events and via Take it, Leave it Bookshelf, which puts books in locations that low-income families frequent in this economically depressed city.

“We target kids from baby to third grade,” says Wilson, a retired school librarian. “Kids today don’t think of recreational reading as fun. But with our bookshelves, they can select what they are interested in, so they will read. That’s what we’re trying to foster and it’s working.”

In summer 2015, bookcases were located in seven places including the laundromat, community centers, YMCAs, a church and a nonprofit organization that serves families. Two barber shops catering to African Americans have followed suit independently but with West County Reads books. A preschool will soon receive a bookshelf.

“With preschool budgets being slashed,” the need is growing, says Wilson. “We tailor each bookshelf to the needs of the site.” Children are encouraged to return books but it is not required. “What we want to do is get more books in the community,” says Wilson.

At laundromats in the nearby GLR community of Oakland, free bilingual children’s books will be distributed on October 22 to mark the kickoff of Jumpstart’s annual Read for the Record®. This effort is connected to a new nationwide Wash Time is Talk Time promotion in laundromats from Too Small to Fail, an early childhood initiative of the Clinton Foundation and Next Generation, a San Francisco nonprofit, in collaboration with the Coin Laundry Association.

The Oakland laundromats are among 5,000 in disadvantaged communities nationwide that will receive a free Talking is Teaching: Talk, Read Sing toolkit to distribute to families, encouraging them to talk, read and sing with their young children and to boost early brain and language development.

In Oakland, volunteers from First 5 Alameda County and elsewhere will host free laundry days, lead monthly story times and engage parents. A similar effort in northwest Arkansas laundromats will be led by the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions.

In Richmond, Take it, Leave it Bookshelf began in 2005 in 14 elementary schools in low-income neighborhoods where the school library was not open after the school day. Two years later, the bookshelves spread to community centers, youth organizations and a church. In 2010, the laundromat idea took off. Books also have been distributed at a community garden event.

“We’ve had many partners and books donated from all over the place,” says Wilson. We always seem to have enough books somehow. There’s no overhead, no stress and people know how to contact us to replenish the shelves.”

Donations have come from book drives held by West County Reads and the Richmond Rotary Club as well as from a private middle school, public schools and public library after they culled their collections. Cash donations are used to buy multicultural and bilingual books, in particular, from the nonprofit distributer, First Book Marketplace.

A Richmond Community Foundation grant was used to buy new bookcases. County-funded agencies donated surplus bookcases. A local mall donated storage space for the books. Retired school literacy specialists volunteer to sort and level books by grade.

“We’re all volunteers and yet we’ve been doing this for a long time and the interest just grows,” says Wilson. “You need dedicated volunteers who believe in the project.”

For more information contact, Robin Wilson at 510-757-5030 or robinyeewilson@aol.comPhotos: West County Reads; Publication Date: Summer 2015

Does your community work to reach families where they are with books and literacy messages? If so, share your experience in the comments box!

Want more? Check out: How Kansas City reaches out to families at barber shops, Roanoke reaches them on buses and Dayton reaches them at bus stations.


Betsy Rubiner is a writer and senior consultant with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

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  • Great idea! We have been talking about using laundromats also, a great place to reach a "captive" audience!
    • Hi Laura,
      Nice to connect with another Iowan (I'm in Des Moines)...stay tuned for an upcoming Innovation Brief that includes many options (including laundromats) for connecting with parents where they are!
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