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Finding a welcome home for used books

With volunteer effort, David Mazor's idea has helped readers around the U.S.

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"It's always funny to note what was current in the 1950s," says Meredith Wilson, an intern who's a junior at Amherst. As she sorts, she says they send the books that aren't fresh enough to prisoners – or to the recycling bin.

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A publisher once sent 5,000 math books. Church groups and sororities pass along the fruits of their book drives. One box of children's books came with a handmade doll attached to each. A retired teacher rented a U-Haul to deliver 35 boxes. And occasionally, there's the inexplicable: "Someone sent us hats once – sombreros," Ms. Wilson says.

Volunteers help organize books into genres and grade levels. Simple wooden shelves hold everything from science fiction paperbacks to art history textbooks to books on tape. Some stacks are labeled with fluorescent sticky notes – or half a note, a hint at the group's frugality.

Mazor's "corner office" is a windowless cramped corner. His computer sits on a desk he found on the side of the road. Wire mesh separates him from the furnace, and wooden clothespins attach his calendar and thank you notes to the wire.

With an operating budget of just $200,000, Mazor says, the group sends out about $1 million worth of books a year. By keeping things simple, they can respond to most requests immediately.

Clauschee works with many students who test well below grade level in reading. Several years ago she asked Mazor for "manga," or graphic novels. "A lot of kids won't carry around a book on a second-grade reading level if they're in high school. ... But it's really cool to carry around a graphic novel," she says. She and Mazor realized that having books on the shelves isn't always enough to encourage students to read. So they tried an online mentoring project with a class Clauschee taught last year. Mazor recruited student workers to read books of the Navajo students' choosing and participate in an online discussion. They started off with mostly native American authors, such as the popular Sherman Alexie, but broadened out with "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Kite Runner."

At first the Navajo students' posts were short and obligatory, says Wilson, one of the mentors. But Clauschee taught them to think about character development, writing style, and the author's background. The teens started logging on in their free time and making deeper comments.

Communicating one-on-one with their mentors as they read native American literature, they were "fearless," Clauschee says. "Pretty soon, the kids ... were doing their own literary criticism."

At the close of the school year, Mazor asked each student in the Navajo Pine class to give him a list of seven books they'd like to read over the summer. He bought everything on their lists, and already has bought three more for a girl who devoured her seven.

Mazor's colleagues describe him as a man who makes things happen. But he's a humble executive director. "I can remember starting this all by myself, and now we have so many other people involved," he says. "That's really what makes something like this successful – it's a team effort."