Philadelphia teacher Emily Thomas stared in awe when she stepped inside the BookSmiles warehouse in South Jersey: Thousands of books were piled almost to the ceiling.
Like a child in a candy store, Thomas smiled with glee as she pored through the free books, looking for the best selections for sixth graders in her English class at Farrell Elementary in the Northeast.
“This is incredible,” said Thomas, an educator for three decades. “It’s almost like a teacher’s dream come true. You can come to get books for free.”
BookSmiles is the brainchild of Larry Abrams, a third-generation teacher who turned his passion for books into a giveaway to empower fellow educators to share books with students who may have few or no books at home.
Since 2017, Abrams has distributed about 225,000 books, about 60% to Philadelphia teachers. He ultimately wants to give away one million and is looking into expanding to other New Jersey towns.
“That is my dream, that is my vision: that every child grows up with lots of good books,” said Abrams, 52, who has two adult children. “I just don’t think it’s fair as a teacher that some kids have advantages that other kids don’t.”
Teachers from across the region flock to a 1,000-square-foot book storage unit in Cherry Hill on Wednesdays and Sundays to browse through boxes and piles of donated new and slightly used books. The books are sorted in categories and by reading levels.
On a cold night last week, a steady flow of teachers, some first-timers like Thomas, showed up at the book bank on Old Cuthbert Boulevard in Cherry Hill. Volunteers sorted donations as the tunes of Irving Berlin played softly.
Patricia Holland, a reading teacher at Fine Elementary in Pennsauken, said the free books would allow her to let every student in her class pick a book to keep. She was excited to find a Pete the Cat book, a favorite among her students.
“I could never afford to give them all books,” said Holland, who often purchases supplies for her classroom.
Judy Stein, a retired teacher who reads to kindergartners at VeteransMemorial Family School in Camden, picked books to give as gifts for Valentine’s Day. She was there with volunteers from Bookmates, a literacy program that targets Title I schools.
“The kids love it,” said Stein, 75, of Cherry Hill.
The teachers are allowed to take as many books as they want to become what Abrams calls “literacy warriors.” Thomas left with 350 books. Abrams encourages teachers to use the books in their classrooms, build libraries, or give them to their students and encourage them to share with siblings.
About 12,000 books are given out monthly. A recommended $10 annual fee allows teachers to return as often as they like.
The books are donated by volunteers who sponsor collection drives, publishers, bookstores, schools, churches, civic groups, and parents happy to give away books their children have outgrown, Abrams said. Books also can be dropped off at book donation stations.
Several school districts in South Jersey, including Cherry Hill, Voorhees, Woolwich, Haddon Heights, Haddonfield, and Marlton, each donated at least 1,000 books, Abrams said. For his bar mitzvah in November, Sam Becker, 13, of Cherry Hill, enlisted neighbors to help donate 4,100 books.
Abrams grew up in Tupper Lake in upstate New York. His parents were special-education teachers who later taught in prisons. He never believed that he would follow in their footsteps.
After graduating from the University of Rochester with a bachelor’s in English, Abrams served in the Navy for four years as a commissioned officer. He spent six months aboard an aircraft carrier during the Persian Gulf War.
Abrams managed a Kinkos for seven years, before he found his calling at age 32: teaching. He obtained a teaching certificate from the College of New Jersey and in 2001 landed a job as an English teacher at Moorestown High, in one of South Jersey’s most affluent districts.
Three years later, Abrams moved to Lindenwold schools, in one of the poorest districts in the region. He teaches five English classes a day to ninth and 12th graders.
Abrams said he was inspired by a student, the mother of a 2-year-old, to launch BookSmiles especially in underserved communities such as Lindenwold. When he asked the teen what she read to the toddler, the answer shocked him:
She smiled and said that her girl was too little to understand, going on to say, “‘Reading to children just isn’t part of my culture,’” he recalled.
Abrams quickly organized his first book collection, netting 1,000 books. He began storing books in his classroom and later in the garage of his Cherry Hill home, which was filled to capacity with 10,000 books.
Last August, he moved the nonprofit operation and the books to a unit in an office park with a $7,000 donation from a book publisher. He also recently hired a part-time worker.
“It’s the right thing to do to give kids books,” Abrams said.
The BookSmiles Book Bank is at 1879 Old Cuthbert Blvd., Unit 33, Cherry Hill, N.J., 08034. For more information: firstname.lastname@example.org.