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Whatever faraway place Kyle Kimmal travels to with his partner, he always visits at least one independent bookstore, stealing away for more than an hour to comb through shelves and stacks of literature, deciding what he’ll buy with the flip of a page rather than the touch of a screen.

Independent bookstores — which Kimmal describes as “the soul of a community” — have been a constant for the fifth grade English language arts teacher throughout the different chapters of his life, particularly The Bookies Bookstore in Denver, where he has returned for more than 20 years.

In the past year alone, Kimmal, who teaches at Denver Language School’s Gilpin campus, has expanded his classroom library with more than 100 books from the 50-year-old bookstore. All were purchased by students — current and former — their families and even strangers. 

Kimmal is one of more than 150 Colorado educators and school librarians from public and private schools who have benefited from a teacher gift registry run by The Bookies Bookstore, which also hosts book fairs for schools and sells books to teachers at discounted prices. Since the bookstore launched the registry last summer, teachers from across the state — mostly in districts along the Front Range but also as far-flung as Gypsum — have received more than 1,500 books, most of which they would have otherwise had to buy with their own money.

“We love teachers, and we are a lot of retired teachers and school librarians ourselves, so one way that we knew that was tangible to support teachers that was automatic instead of just saying, ‘support your teachers,’ was to provide them with the books that they wanted,” store manager Krista Carlton said.

Books on a shelf.
The Bookies’ teacher book registry program, active for about a year, has resulted in more than 1,500 book purchases from teacher lists. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“It’s an easy promise of, here’s a book,” Carlton added. “It is in your hand. It is yours to keep. Someone else bought it for you, no strings attached.”

Through the teacher gift registry, Colorado educators can browse the bookstore’s catalog online and create a wish list by selecting the books they want for their students to read or for themselves to help improve their teaching. The bookstore makes those lists available online and in the store. Kids’ books like “Fatima’s Great Outdoors,” “Holes” and “What the Moon Saw” greet customers as they enter the store and immediately see a display of teachers who are part of the registry and one of the books they’re hoping to introduce to students.

The registry puts a local spin on teacher wish lists hosted by Amazon, where teachers can post classroom supplies they need for the school year. The online retail giant has made it exceedingly difficult for small independent bookstores to keep their doors open, a big reason why loyal customers like Kimmal continue supporting local booksellers.

“Even though Amazon is a lot cheaper,” he said, “you get what you pay for, so you get that personal relationship with your independent bookseller that is so important.”

But The Bookies’ teacher gift registry is a relatively novel program among independent bookstores in metro Denver and neighboring communities. Other locally owned bookstores also offer teachers discounts and support schools through regular book fairs and have found ways to give back to schools. The Shop at MATTER in Denver — which sells books primarily written by authors of color, queer authors and women and focuses on works of social justice — has partnered with the nonprofit Invest in Kids to distribute books among 250 teachers in Colorado. Boulder Book Store has coordinated author visits in its own space and at local schools.

Help from travelers and visiting authors

The teacher gift registry at The Bookies fell into place when one of the shop’s former educators turned booksellers, Jayne Sbarboro, saw another online program where teachers could list classroom necessities and when the store’s software program developed the ability to devise registries. Sbarboro, who taught elementary school for 17 years and served as principal of Denver’s Doull Elementary School for six years, helped create the initial registry to support a handful of teachers. 

A woman in a bookstore shows off the inside of a picture book.
Jayne Sbarboro, a former school principal, shows her published works, “The Truest Heart” and “The Bravest Hearts”, children’s books about overcoming bullying, at The Bookies Bookstore in Denver on July 18. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The registry showed promise early on after one customer donated $500 toward books for educators, said Sbarboro, who aims to help all teachers access books that will enhance their lessons, especially those working in high-poverty schools.

“Some teachers will be buying books specifically to give to their kids because they know their kids don’t have a library at home,” she said.

Since the registry’s beginning days, visiting authors have contributed $100, and guests staying at a nearby hotel or people trying to pass time while waiting for their clothes at a neighboring laundromat have stopped in and ended up buying a book for a teacher.

“They’ll look at these books and sometimes go, ‘I loved that book as a kid. I want to get that book for a teacher,’” Carlton said. 

The shop has also sold books for educators to parents wanting to support their child’s teacher and to students who set out to thank their teacher on the last day of school with books from their registry. Carlton recalls one day a former teacher well into retirement popped into the shop, spotted the school they taught at along with the name of one of its current teachers and purchased a book for them.

“At the heart of it,” Carlton said, “it’s a way to support teachers, and that’s where this comes from.”

Kimmal, who will start his 28th year as an educator next month, recently received four books from a student he taught as a third grader, now a newly minted college graduate. Another set of books came from two of his students from the past school year, who devoted a third of their profits from their neighborhood lemonade stand to his classroom library rather than saving that money to spend on vacation.

Without a personal budget to buy books for his classroom, the teacher gift registry has helped him round out his assortment of books and tap into new releases.

The windows to The Bookies show a sign promoting its teacher registry.
The Bookies’ teacher book registry program, active for about a year, has resulted in more than 1,500 book purchases from teacher lists. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“The kids are so diverse in their reading levels and in their reading habits and in the genres that they like to read that it’s hard to keep up,” he said.

And it’s helped the elementary school teacher steer kids who shy away from reading to books that he hopes will sprout a lifelong interest in literature — that “captures either their imagination, their love, their understanding of being able to escape into a good book.” 

“A lot of these books that I got off the registry are books that made a difference in these kids’ reading lives,” said Kimmal, who estimates that he has about 1,000 books for students to read.

A gift for “reluctant readers”

The eight books that Liz Bamesberger has racked up through the bookstore’s teacher gift registry have also helped the students who she describes as “reluctant readers” gravitate toward books and crack open stories that will mesmerize them.

Bamesberger, who has taught for 17 years, has built her collection of more than 500 classroom books largely by sorting through books at thrift stores. The Bookies’ teacher gift registry has augmented her library with splashy new titles that immediately grab students’ attention.

“I think it’s given me the ability to expose my kids to a wide variety of books and new literature,” said Bamesberger, who teaches fifth grade literacy at Creativity Challenge Community, an elementary innovation school in Denver. “They love when new things come in and I don’t always have new things, and so when these new things are bought I always just display the new books and they’re usually just grabbed so quickly.”

The inside of a picture book.
Jayne Sbarboro, a former school principal, shows her published works, “The Truest Heart” and “The Bravest Hearts”, children’s books about overcoming bullying, at The Bookies Bookstore in Denver on July 18, 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The teacher gift registry falls under The Bookies’ broader mission to connect the community with books — a goal that store owner Nicole Sullivan has also worked to reach by forming a nonprofit called BookGive. The nonprofit, housed in a converted vintage gas station, distributes books to more than 250 organizations across metro Denver in need of books with more than 300 volunteers who split time between the station’s old garages, gathering donated books that pile up in one garage bay and sorting and compiling them in the other.

Sullivan, who for a decade owned and operated The BookBar on Tennyson Street before closing it in January, hasn’t been chasing a profit at The Bookies since she took over ownership in November 2021, particularly in an industry dominated by Amazon.

“We’re not even trying to compete with Amazon,” she said. “There’s no competition. We’re just trying to survive with Amazon in the picture.”

The Bookies, which will relocate to South Holly Street in Denver later this year, reorganized as a public benefit corporation when Sullivan assumed leadership, giving any revenue beyond what it needs to pay its staff and bills back to the community through initiatives like the teacher gift registry and BookGive.

Books have shaped Sullivan’s life since she was a kid, informing how she sees the world — first as a teenager reading novels by Toni Morrison and J.D. Salinger and now as an adult trying to spark her love of literacy in others. 

“Those books just opened up a whole world and opened my eyes to so many other histories, existences, and so it’s really changed my life,” Sullivan said, adding, “you want that for other people too.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...