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The Noir Bookshop brings a book vending machine to local centers to promote literacy

Kid books reading with parent illustration
Esmé Shapiro
Special to NPR
The Noir Bookshop, a bookstore in south St. Louis, is placing a book vending machine in book deserts around the area to boost literacy in communities of color. The free book machine will dispense over 150 books for children, including large picture books, graphic novels, comic books, novels and popular young adult series books.

The Noir Bookshop is placing a vending machine in recreation centers and community centers across St. Louis to give book access to children who live in areas where it is hard to find reading materials without transportation.

The free book machine will dispense, beginning in January, about 150 paperback and hard copies of children’s books, young adult series, graphic novels and other genres of books for infants through high school students.

Not every child can visit the bookstore or any others to read and collect books, said Ymani Wince, owner of The Noir Bookshop in south St. Louis.

“How do I ignore the sort of book desert situation happening in my own city?” Wince said. “I just feel like if people have the power to change someone's lives with the stroke of a pen, or in ways that are not going to harm, why not do that.”

In St. Louis, white students at public or charter schools are more than twice as likely to read proficiently in the third grade than Black students. Many of those Black students live in book deserts, a geographical location where it’s difficult to access books, computers or other materials that will help improve literacy without transportation.

According to Unite the Literacy’sbook desert map, homes in pockets of south St. Louis and many households in north St. Louis do not possess 100 or more books. The literacy nonprofit suggests from its research that the number of books in a home correlates with children’s reading proficiency levels.

The jarring statistics of the number of St. Louis students having trouble reading proficiently by the third grade and the many households without access to books grew heavy on Wince and inspired her to make a change.

“It's really easy to write people off based on socioeconomic status, but that has nothing to do with what's going on intellectually,” she said.

Wince received a grant from Forward Through Ferguson to help purchase “ONYX” — the vending machine — which is created by Inchy’s Bookworm. Once students locate the machine, they can insert a token from the recreation or community center where it is housed and receive a free book. Wince hopes the machine will encourage reading and help students of color build their own home libraries.

“I have no idea who these books are going to touch or what sort of ideas it might spark … but I'm hoping that it becomes something for everybody in the community,” she said.

Children need to have access to books from every genre, said Lisa Greening, executive director of Turn the Page STL, a literacy initiative that helps children read proficiently by the end of third grade.

“Many of these children go to schools that don't have librarians and don't have library time,” Greening said. “So they're not bringing them home from school anymore.”

She said the book vending machine will give students access to the tools they need that can help them become proficient readers and change the narrative in their minds about what it means to be a reader.

“If you don't see that as something that you do — read — you don't do it,” Greening said. “But if you go to the after school program, and everybody's lining up at the vending machine, and you see books in there that look like you and have people that have spirits just like you … then that becomes what you do.”

Through the Noir Bookshop’s “Books Are Good” campaign, people and organizations can donate books from the store’s wishlist to help keep the vending machine stocked.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.