Lexington’s Delaware Avenue is home to a swath of commercial businesses, residential properties and boutique eateries on the fringes of downtown. Nestled among the mid-century buildings is an unassuming brick structure, a giant paper airplane and the words “Int’l Book Project” blazoned above the door. From the outside, it is one of many such industrial buildings found in this part of the East End. But inside, it houses treasure — stacks and stacks of it.
This building houses the International Book Project, a nonprofit organization that provides books and promotes literacy around the world. Working with partners both domestically and internationally, IBP ships curated selections of books to communities in need. Since its founding in 1966, IBP has shipped over 8 million books to 167 different countries, according to IBP’s Executive Director Lisa Fryman.
The front of the building is a bookstore, with shelves of books on a range of topics found along the brightly colored walls, as well as office space for staff members. But the back of the facility is, in Fryman’s words, “the room where it happens." Through a set of glass doors at the back of the store is a warehouse, with rows of shelving holding boxes decorated with the organization’s signature paper airplane. A row of rolling bins, filled to the brim with books divided by genre, sits along a side wall.
This warehouse is where every book the IBP sends around the country and world begins its journey. Books are collected from donations and book drives, and a team of staff and volunteers sorts them by genre, packs the books into boxes and on pallets and weighs them to be shipped. After a shipment is packed, the boxes are loaded into a sea shipping container and delivered to a port near their destination. Fryman said that the journey from warehouse to doorstep typically takes a few months.
Partners that can receive books include organizations, schools, libraries and communities that apply for a shipment, which can range in size from one box to multiple pallets. The application allows partners to specify what type of books they need, whether it be university textbooks, children’s books or fiction novels. Fryman said it is this curation that sets IBP apart from other, similar nonprofits.
“I love the fact that people only get what they need and [what] they ask for,” she said. The books are free; partners are only asked to pay for customs and clearance fees, as well as a small portion of the shipping costs for larger shipments. In summer 2022, IBP sent a shipment to Poland for Ukrainian refugees sheltering there, packing 54,000 children’s books.
Stacie Musser, the organization’s director of operations, worked directly with the Universal Reading Foundation to coordinate the project.
“When we finally got the container out, we had maybe half of one bin of kids’ books left,” she said. “We sent everything we had.”
The organization is currently working on a shipment of books bound for a group of schools in Tanzania, relying on the help of volunteers to reach its goal. Musser said over 600 volunteers participated in 2022, some helping once and others weekly. Because the organization's staff consists of “three-and-a-half” — three full time employees and one intern — she said volunteers are vital to IBP’s work.
“There’s always something to do, and that’s, in my opinion, the main vehicle for driving the work,” she said. “Without the volunteers, there’s just no way.” Rick Berlin has been volunteering with IBP for two months, working a two-hour shift once a week when not at his full time bartending job. Berlin said IBP’s mission drew him to the organization.
“I’m a lifelong learner, self professed, and I like books,” he said. “I think all of that and education, providing the opportunity for those that don’t have it, I think, is tremendous. The idea about volunteering is just a little something. We’ve all got time, and just going and helping an organization is doing good work.”
Berlin was helping to sort and pack books for the Zambia project, going through the bins and looking for K-12 books on STEM, literature and the arts. “We are trying to reach a country that doesn’t have access, so I’m trying to look at it from the eyes of a kid in Zambia,” he said. “What would I want to know about this outside world?”
If a book is too worn or falls under a category of books the organization does not accept, such as religious or self-help books, it is recycled. Musser said this is hard sometimes, but she tells book-loving volunteers that each book has a natural lifespan. She said she also thanks each book for its service before throwing it away.
“The value of the book is its content,” she said. “We’re not throwing away a book. We’re just throwing out paper and materials that are worn out.” IBP also serves local needs through programs like Books in the Bluegrass, affectionately called the “bookshelf program.” The organization sends a fully stocked bookshelf to every Habitat for Humanity house or refugee family in Central Kentucky, the books curated to the family’s specific needs.
Fryman said volunteers enjoy filling the bookshelves, often including Kentucky-specific books to welcome families to their new home.“It’s like shopping,” she said.
The books used in shipments, Books in the Bluegrass and the bookstore are all donated, either from individuals or companies like Better World Books. Around 80% of IBP’s supply is local, coming from residents of Central Kentucky. Musser said there were 40,000-50,000 books on the warehouse floor at the time, and they receive around 1,000 donated books per month.
Similarly, all of the organization’s funding is from grants, donors and special events. Fryman said that while 30-40% of IBP’s financial backing comes from grants, it still heavily relies on the generosity of individuals and businesses. Jill Gookin, IBP’s director of development, said while the organization currently partners with several businesses, including Ball Homes and Keystone Financial Group, it is trying to grow its corporate sponsorship program.
“We have many generous [partners] that are either here in Kentucky or international businesses,” she said. “We are grateful to all of them, but we know there’s others out there that just don’t know we’re here.” Fryman said that a problem the organization faces is a lack of donations to the “general fund,” which is where proceeds from the bookstore go.
While donors often send money for a specific purpose, whether it be to purchase books, buy a shipping container or fund Books in the Bluegrass, the organization does not often receive money for less glamorous expenses, like paying salaries or covering operating costs. “I think this is probably true of every nonprofit,” Fryman said. “That’s kind of one of our goals, to expand that list of people [donating to the general fund].”
Ultimately, IBP’s hope is to continue the work of its founder, Harriet Van Meter, whose portrait hangs prominently on one of the bookstore’s walls. According to the organization's website, Van Meter was inspired to send books to communities in need after returning to Lexington from a trip to India in 1965. She placed an ad in an Indian newspaper promising to send books to anyone who wrote to her. She received over 400 letters, the website says.
Van Meter turned the basement of her Lexington home into a makeshift warehouse, inviting friends to come pack books for those in need. Fryman said the grandmother of a current IBP board member was a friend of Van Meter and helped in one of these basement packing parties.
“[Van Meter] used to invite everyone over for lunch and give them little cucumber sandwiches with the crust cut off and wine,” Fryman said. “And then she’d say, ‘Okay, now everyone’s going to the basement!’”
In 1983, IBP bought the building it currently calls home, and Fryman said when the attic was being cleaned out before a recent renovation, the staff found every check Van Meter wrote since 1966. Van Meter was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 “for her efforts to increase world literacy,” the website says. “I have this feeling, from the people who said it about her, that [she was] of those people that didn’t take no for an answer,” Fryman said.
Since the first box that Van Meter sent, IBP has been committed to her vision of providing books and promoting literacy. Gookin said she loves her job because she feels like each day she is making a difference, both in Kentucky and around the world, to increase the quality of life of those in need.
“Literacy is a globally-recognized solution to ending the cycle of poverty around the world,” she said. “So every day when you come to work, as a person, you feel that you’re just moving that needle ever so slightly, the more books that you have the opportunity to get to people.”