In a world that sells us pricey SAT tutors and special admission preschools—a world that’s riddled with digital divides and inequity in education—the prospect of helping all kids achieve academic success can feel incredibly refreshing.
Because here’s the heartening truth: The number-one predictor of academic achievement for a child isn’t parents’ income or nationality or professional success or education level. It’s simply growing up with books in the home. That’s the secret sauce. It’s this idea—getting books to Philly kids and their families—that’s been the driving force for North Philly’s Tree House Books for 15 years.
“Our origin story actually reads a little bit like the beginning of a joke,” says Michael Brix, Tree House’s executive director, “at least in terms of all the characters who were involved.”
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To wit: A real estate developer, a Black Panther who was a neighborhood activist, and some folks from a CDC at the Church of the Advocate decided to open a used bookstore. An old storefront on Susquehanna Avenue was the perfect space … though it was so dilapidated that part of the ceiling had collapsed, allowing a giant weed to shoot up from the ground, big as a tree. When the developer saw it, he had a vision—children playing in a treehouse—that he brought to life with a cozy reading loft, decorated as if it were perched high in leafy branches.
“You know, it’s not a great time for sports in our city,” Brix says. “It’s not a great time for going out. But books? We can rally around reading and literature and books now.”
And lo, Tree House Books was born.
After the store opened, Brix says, it became clear that the group had overestimated the neighborhood’s capacity to support a book biz like theirs. Rather than give up, though, they pivoted to a nonprofit model that would give away quality books and run literacy and enrichment programs for the neighborhood—particularly the kids, who were at the core of their mission.
Tree House Books would make sure that “every child has access to books and every opportunity to fulfill their dreams and explore their passion.”
Fast-forward a decade and a half, and Tree House is more than a community hub—it’s a community powerhouse with a diverse network of volunteers, citywide partners, and a place in the lives of hundreds of Philly families. The handful of successful programs they operate fall under two umbrellas: first, making sure kids have access to great, grade-level reading; second, offering programming to help them make the most of their reading and writing.
In 2019 alone, the nonprofit gave away nearly 89,000 books, served 576 children through their literacy programs, and partnered with former Eagle Chris Long and the United Way to get new books to K-3 students in seven North Philly schools—an effort that’s especially meaningful when you remember that the majority of public elementary schools in Philadelphia don’t even have lending libraries.
“We got something like 7,500 to schools in our neighborhood,” Brix says. “It was awesome.”
Many of the Tree House endeavors offer that same kind of cool factor: Their Giving Library, for instance, is a pay-what-you-wish book store filled with hundreds of constantly rotating books. The Library (temporarily closed, due to the pandemic) is open six days a week in non-Covid times.
They also supply books to some 100 different entities, from organizations like the Maternity Care Coalition to local daycares and rec centers, where they stock the bookshelves with age-appropriate books. “We call them our branches,” Brix says.
And there’s Words on Wheels, a book-delivery program designed to combat the dreaded summer slide for school kids. A fleet of volunteers loads up their bikes, wagons and handcarts to hand out books to neighborhood families.
This year, Tree House added a literacy specialist to the program who offers “pre-tests” to families to determine children’s reading levels, then helps guide them to books that will propel their reading skills. “It’s almost like an individualized curriculum,” Brix says. “It’s really, really neat.”
In 2019 alone, the nonprofit gave away nearly 89,000 books, served 576 children through their literacy programs, and partnered with former Eagle Chris Long and the United Way to get new books to K-3 students in seven North Philly schools.
This is all in addition to Tree House’s free extracurricular programming for kids, a smattering of programs for families, low-cost summer camps and—in Covid-19 times—even “equity pods” to give local kids a quiet place with reliable WiFi to do their online learning (plus a little extra literacy and arts enrichment).
In short? It’s been a remarkably impactful, inspiring run so far for a one-time used bookstore with a weed tree growing inside.
“The more people know and understand that there’s this little engine that could in North Philadelphia, well, that’s a positive thing,” Brix says. “I think people often hear our story and are galvanized and excited by it.”
Of course, he says, during Covid-19 it’s just nice to put something out there that people can look forward to.
“You know, it’s not a great time for sports in our city,” he says with a laugh. “It’s not a great time for going out. But books? We can rally around reading and literature and books now.”Header photo courtesy Tree House Books