It all started with a stack of books that needed a home.
David Mazor had some leftovers after collecting book donations for his daughter's state college. He Googled "poorest state" and came up with Mississippi. He searched for its poorest town and up popped Durant, a tiny thumbprint near the road connecting Memphis and New Orleans.
The next morning he called the town's high school librarian and asked if they needed any books. "At our school," he recalls her saying, "if someone wants to learn about landing on the moon, we don't have any books that current."
Eight years later, you'd need a shelf about 30 times the length of Durant's main drag to hold the 2,000,000 new and gently used books Mr. Mazor has distributed throughout the United States.
Each delivery is like a rain shower on thirsty land: School library spending per student has declined about 40 percent since 2000, to $11.24, according to the American Library Association.
At first, friends' donations landed in Mazor's garage, where he matched them to librarians' wish lists and shipped them off, charging postage to his credit card.
"It was so exciting to see how much the schools responded to what we were sending," he says, delight flashing across his face. "My wife thought I was kind of crazy because I woke up in the middle of the night and said, 'I know what I'm going to do!' " He shifted away from his work as a film distributor and launched a nonprofit, Reader to Reader, to sustain his matchmaking efforts.
Growing up in a family that loved to read, Mazor couldn't tolerate so many children lacking books. "In affluent communities, people were often just sort of tossing the books away because they didn't know what to do with them," he says. "We could match up that need with that resource."
It's a simple idea, but for librarians like Carla Clauschee, no one had ever proposed it before. When Mazor called her at Navajo Pine High School in Navajo, N.M., telling her he could send books, she replied, "That's great – but I can't pay for them."
Ms. Clauschee agreed to his offer because she was "really desperate," she says. Every librarian can tell horror stories of useless donations showing up at their doorstep, so "when somebody comes along and genuinely wants to help ... you have to think positive. You have to think that the box that's coming is not moth-eaten." Thanks to her trust, a once "prehistoric" collection has been updated over the past seven years with more than 7,000 books, including collections of native American literature.
"We want every single box of books that a school opens to be in absolutely fantastic condition, to be like a Christmas present," Mazor says as he casts his eye around the basement book haven that serves as Reader to Reader headquarters.
The group long ago moved out of Mazor's garage to the storage area of Amherst College's Cadigan Center for Religious Life, a squat brick building on the edge of campus. The college donated the space and some computers, and also coordinates student work-study jobs and internships here.
"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.
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."