A perfect storm over the last decade-and-a-half, not limited to the Great Recession, COVID-19 and multiple natural disasters, saw Pensacola’s used bookstores tumble like dominoes — all except Open Books. Though not unaffected, the all-volunteer nonprofit is flourishing and hopes to return to pre-pandemic normalcy, starting with their annual— now semiannual—$1 Book Sale.
“We decided to have two $1 sales per year. Right now, we’ve got one planned for Memorial Day weekend,” Johnny Ardis, the general manager of Open Books, said. “Last year, we had one on Thanksgiving weekend, so we’re probably going to continue that routine.” This decision complements Open Book’s plans to add more events, particularly ones which were halted by the pandemic, such as book signings, poetry readings and documentary viewings, to their calendar.
Shoppers can expect to find a wide selection of high quality, good-condition used books, which Open Books prides itself on. They are particularly proud of their poetry selection, boasting that it is “arguably the best” in Pensacola. Ardis credits the oversight of Scott Satterwhite, a founder, longtime volunteer and instructor at University of West Florida. “You know, Scott’s basically the curator of most of these books. And him being an English professor, he knows books! He’s a poet himself, so he curates the poetry section,” Ardis said. “We’ve basically got the best of the best.”
These sales are the perfect opportunity for voracious readers to add a generous heap of books to their “to-read” piles and donate a cache of read books to stock someone else’s, confident that their support will benefit their local community. In addition, all of Open Books’ profits fund the Prison Book Project, which sends free books to inquiring prisoners throughout the state of Florida.
According to a 2021 report by the Florida Department of Corrections, as of June 30, 2021, there were 80,495 inmates in Florida’s prison system. This number fluctuates; yet prison recidivism rates in Florida consistently range between 24 to 25 percent.
The Prison Book Project aims to lower the recidivism rate by providing prisoners with the opportunity to learn practical skills and improve their mental wellbeing during their sentence, allowing for a better chance at successful reintegration upon release.
Nonprofits normally back a cause, but Open Books and the Prison Book Project’s case is unique. Open Books is sort of a façade that the Prison Book Project has worn since October 2007—but the project’s history is longer, seeded in political activism and Pensacola’s once-thriving punk subculture.
In 1999, a group of local activists formed the Collective of Resource Empowerment (CORE) House to combat a variety of sociopolitical issues, including the prison industrial complex, and serve as a small library for political and alternative publications. CORE’s quick dissolution saw their politics and “small but impressive” transform into the Prison Book Project in 2000.
A noble aim—however, the Department of Corrections states that books sent to a prison must be sent from a legitimate bookstore; thus, for there to be a Prison Book Project, there must always be a bookstore. Subterranean Books was then formed to house the project; when Subterranean Books closed, Open Books took its place.
More than a decade later, Open Books—now located at 1040 N. Guillemard Street, in an intimate, quasi-labyrinthine building, surrounded by the colorful graffiti and galleries of First City Art Center, in what might be their perfect match—functions like a “well-oiled machine.”
In 2021, Open Books received 4,164 letters from prisoners in facilities throughout Florida, sent 3,871 book packages and logged 4,485 total volunteer hours. “We probably mail out around 400 packages a month to prisoners. You know what? More like 500 a month we mail out to the prisoners,” Ardis said. “We’ve been consistent these last several years.”
These impressive numbers wouldn’t be possible without the public’s generous donations as well as a dedicated cache of volunteers’ support. In addition to running the store, volunteers read and respond to 85-100 prisoners’ letters, and pack and ship as many book packages, per week. “We have anywhere from two to three volunteers that work in here during the day,” said Ardis. “Then on book-packing nights, we have anywhere from five to eight. We have book packings three times a week,” Ardis explained.
Open Books is a nonprofit with a mission and Ardis credits the volunteers and public support for their success in 2022. Support Open Books and the Prison Books Project by shopping their semiannual $1 book sale on May 28-30 from 12 pm to 5 pm at 1040 N. Guillemard St. in Pensacola.
If you’re looking for ways to get involved with Open Books or the Prison Book Project, visit openbookspcola.org to access their online volunteer application. You can also support Open Books with a tax deductible donation online at patreon.com/openbooks or through PayPal at openbookspcola.org/pay-pal.