From left to right, Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner poses with Michael Brix,
Executive Director of Tree House Books.
by Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner
I came to the edge of Broad Street, Temple University at my back, then crossed from one world to the next. It was an unseasonably hot and sunny afternoon. Down Susquehanna Avenue, a group of people were browsing through a small cart filled with books and I knew I was headed in the right direction.
I walked through the front door and into a small space overflowing with books, tall shelves which lined the walls. Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth immediately jumped out at me and I flipped through Goodbye, Columbus while in the room next door, a teacher helped children with their reading.
I put the book back just as Michael Brix, Executive Director of Tree House Books, came down to meet me.
Do you remember the first book you read that made you love reading?
The Chronicles of Narnia. My mom read that to us before bedtime. That’s always my go-to answer for that question.
I also loved the Beverly Cleary series with Beezus and Ramona, as I was also a pest. And I read a not insignificant amount of Hardy Boys mysteries that had been my father’s.
Coming down here, I realized I still think of you primarily as the head of the Yes! And… theater camp, even though that’s been five years ago now.
Yeah, that was actually the second nonprofit I’d founded. The first was The Simple Way, a community in Kensington that deals with direct relief, taking people to the hospital, providing food and clothing… It was out of that organization that the idea for a theater camp grew, because we’d partnered with UrbanPromise in Camden and a few other organizations to run a summer theater program for kids. So Yes! And…, as we called it, spun off into its own nonprofit, and that’s what I did for the next 20 years.
The entire time, however, I knew that if Yes! And… was going to continue, it needed to have different leadership that would allow it to grow beyond its founders. That was always the hope. So we worked at raising someone up internally, while at the same time I’d begun looking for different opportunities.
That’s when I found Tree House, which fit my skillset perfectly.
In what way?
All the work I’ve done in my life has had social justice as its focus. The Simple Way did it one way, Yes! And… did it a different way, and with Tree House Books, literacy is the focus. All of those things are very much connected, and that was the core reason why I felt comfortable coming here, because it spoke to that passion. The passion for social justice, and the passion for community.
For example, when we talk about expansion opportunities, we’re not talking about taking the Tree House model and bringing it to West Philly or some other neighborhood. No, we’re talking about how to grow deeper roots right here in this community, here in North Philly. That idea resonated with the leadership here, so, like it or not, that’s what they were getting with me.
How long was Tree House Books around before you came on board?
Since 2005. It was the brainchild of folks from the Church of the Advocate, a community staple here in North Philly. At the time, the Church of the Advocate had a Community Development Corp given to it by the city of Philadelphia. They wanted to use it to invest specifically in this corridor of Susquehanna Avenue.
So at the beginning, it was just a used bookstore, but then neighborhood kids started coming in and hanging out, and they developed an after-school program. They purchased the building next door and outfitted that storefront, which is where we now do our K-8 and teen programs, and all of our summer camps.
The Church of the Advocate had quickly realized that a used bookstore just wasn’t the economic engine they thought it would be. It would have closed really quickly if they’d kept it going, so they wisely pivoted to this nonprofit model, and all the classes and other activities grew organically out of the relationships between the bookstore and the people in the neighborhood.
But it’s still such a great space for a used bookstore, I see a lot of my favorite writers. I can tell just from a glance that you manage the selection seriously.
Absolutely. We have books for children, teens and adults, and back behind us, there’s a section focused on African-American literacy – black authors, black characters, black stories – because that’s what serves this neighborhood. We want to make sure that we’re constantly stocking and featuring those titles. That’s something that we feel sets us apart.
That, and also the fact that all the books are free.
And when did you… Wait, what?
All the books in here that you see, everything on our shelves, it’s all free.
People can just come in here and take whatever books they want?
Absolutely. All told, we distribute about 88,000 free books a year. But that’s not just through this space. We also have bookshelves in area rec centers, apartment complexes and other places. We then go around on a regular basis, restocking and refreshing as needed.
Then there’s our bookmobile, the Traveling Tree House, which makes over 20 stops a week at daycares and festivals, Smith playground… they just park somewhere and put up a sign that says FREE BOOKS!
We have so many different programs, like Words on Wheels, wherein we deliver new books right to kid’s homes three times throughout the summer. Then there’s our online Book of the Month Club that people can sign up and read along with Kai. Last month, she was able to do an Instagram live interview with the author of the book, so it’s really fun and engaging.
Also, once a year, we have an event that we call Philadelphia Literacy Day, which is a whole street festival. We close down the block, invite a bunch of authors to come out and sign their books, which we then give away.
So this whole neighborhood is just overflowing with books.
One of the coolest things about this organization is that it grows just by listening to the needs of the neighborhood, but our primary mission is to ensure that people have books in their homes.
I often reference this 2019 article from Social Science Research Journal entitled “Scholarly culture: How books in adolescence enhance adult literacy, numeracy and technology skills in 31 societies.” It shows that, globally, children who are around books show an increase in their overall literacy rates, which then impacts other learning metrics.
So there have to be books in the homes that kids are interacting with. In this neighborhood, that just wasn’t necessarily the case. The impetus then became to make that happen.
Where do the books come from?
All sorts of sources, book drives, individuals, organizations, local authors… People can buy new books from our wish lists at local bookstores, kids’ books at Harriett’s and adult books from Uncle Bobbie’s. Books and Stuff, which used to have a brick and mortar store in Germantown, has also been a good partner, as well as Hachette and Quirk Books, which also bears fruit in the form of book donations. We always try to stay local, though, and away from Amazon.
We’re a part of Read by 4th, which is the overarching literacy collective in Philly, but we’re most closely related to the Book Bank, and they’re awesome. They get a lot of books out to teachers and other professionals, to help build their classrooms. They operate out of Martin Luther King Jr. High School, and Anne’s been doing that work for years, it’s a passion project of hers. I love what they do and how they do it.
So once we get the books, we then weed out any badly treated ones. As I said, we’re careful about curating books that our community needs and wants. For example, when the Traveling Tree House goes to neighborhoods that are primarily Spanish-speaking, then we need to be able to feature Spanish language books.
That’s great that you’re partnering with so many local bookstores. It seems like some of them might be upset that you’re essentially giving away the merchandise.
It’s definitely something that I stress out about, but in general, I think book lovers are a special breed of people and they get what we’re doing. We’re part of the Philly Bookstore Map Project, and I told them, we’re not really like the rest of you, but almost all of them understand that we’re mostly serving just this neighborhood. We’re not out to undercut anyone, and sometimes we can even help out.
For example, if people want to buy us new books, we have a special online-store set up through Harriet’s. She holds on to those books, which we then pick up and give away. That’s a way we can divest from Amazon and support a local business at the same time.
Wow, that’s really smart.
A lot of the stuff we do is organic. It really comes from the passions of the staff. The Book Swap festivals, for example, were my Managing Director of Programming’s brainchild. We do four of those a year, people bring books to swap, and there’s a DJ, sidewalk games, vendors… It started out as just this great pilot idea, and now it’s a major part of what we do.
But ultimately, as I said, what makes us really unique is that we’re here in North Philly. We may have all these connections and support initiatives all throughout the city, but our community outreach is located right here.
Are there plans to keep expanding?
I can’t reveal too much, but we’re looking to renovate a property in this neighborhood that we’ll be able to move into, and our hope is that we’ll then be able to serve as many as three times the amount of people than we do now.
The people I’m working with in terms of fundraising are telling me that we’re in our silent phase, which is ridiculous, because I can’t stop talking about it.