Cherry Hill resident Larry Abrams started BookSmiles with a small space and a dream: to provide reading materials to young children who might not otherwise have the means.
Originally operated out of Abrams’ home, BookSmiles was upgraded last summer to a spot on Old Cuthbert Road, conveniently tucked away in a quiet spot between I-295 and the New Jersey Turnpike.
But BookSmiles has become such an all-encompassing endeavor it needs to expand to a larger facility to keep up with donations. By Abrams’ estimation, he’ll need a facility at least three times as large as his current location.
“I’m keeping a lot of options open,” he revealed during a conversation on Dec. 12. “In order to do what we need to do — which is move up to 40,000 books per month, and right now we do about 12,000 books per month — we need something at least 3,000 square feet.
“We’re looking on Routes 70 and 73. We want to stay in the area, and stay in Cherry Hill if the right property comes along. But in order to grow, we need to move out and find a place where we can have that space. We want to move by the summer time. No later than August.”
When the Sun spoke to Abrams, he was taking a quick breather from relocation worries to gear up for a special occasion. The following day, Abrams and BookSmiles were to be honored as a Philadelphia 76ers Community Champion, complete with on-court recognition at halftime of the team’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Earlier in the week, the Philadelphia Flyers Alumni Association stopped by and organization president Brad Marsh presented Abrams with a $1,500 donation towards finding new digs.
Since the BookSmiles Book Bank opened in late August, more than 350 teachers across the region have carted off more than 45,000 gently-used children’s books for their students in underserved districts. And since September 2017, BookSmiles has distributed more than 165,000 books throughout the Delaware Valley.
Abrams, a former English teacher in Moorestown who now works for Lindenwold Public Schools, is backed by 50 volunteers — and a close cadre of dedicated individuals — who help with collecting books and sorting. It soon won’t be enough to sustain the level of excellence the group has set.
“We have a core of 10 people,” Abrams noted. “Nobody gets paid for this. We’re just really good at putting time in to make it happen.
“As long as I’m a teacher, I have no intention of getting paid but when we move to a bigger space, I will need to secure funds to pay a part-time assistant who will serve Philadelphia and a ton of school districts in South Jersey. There are about two dozen districts we actively serve.”
Abrams traces the roots of the singular dedication to his cause, and its rapid success, to his four-year stint in the Navy after college.
“There is this sense of having a relentless commitment to do something,” he explained. “And what I’m doing now with books, it’s also a very patriotic thing — to recognize that it is about lifting people up and giving them the tools to do well.
“Of course, teachers serve as well. And I love to serve with my fellow teachers. We want to irrigate ‘book deserts’ through our book donations and distributions.”
For teachers from Title I schools in New Jersey who wish to participate, BookSmiles is open Wednesday between 4 and 7 p.m. and again Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
To support BookSmiles in its new endeavor and find out more about the organization, visit: https://www.booksmiles.org/donatecontact-us.html.