A School Library's Free Bookstore Turbocharges Reading

At the St. Croix Elementary School in rural Wisconsin, students earn Book Bucks by meeting academic goals and spend them on gently used items.

Student Kelsey Chelberg shops at the Book Boutique.

It is 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, and the library is buzzing. Students are reading in every nook and cranny. The "beep beep" of the checkout is constant. Excited whispers abound: “Look at this picture!” “Have you read this one yet?”  “I met my goals!” And “This book is mine to keep!” St. Croix Falls Elementary, where I am the library media specialist, is a rural school in a Wisconsin community that increasingly struggles with poverty. Despite economic woes, we have almost no achievement gap between the 40 percent of students whose families scrape to make ends meet and their more economically advantaged peers. While the scene I describe may not sound that unique, something very special is happening at our school library. In the little room behind the checkout counter, students are rushing in with hands full of “Book Bucks” and coming out hugging books. This room, once my office, is now the Book Boutique, a free bookstore with hundreds of gently used books. Students in first through fourth grade shop there as they meet academic goals and earn Book Bucks.

The secret to our success

Happy shoppers spending Book Bucks.

There are myriad components to our success, and the school library factors into most of them. The bottom line is that we inspire our students to read. A lot. We have a robust independent reading program that involves time spent reading in and outside of school. We also encourage the community to model a love for books so that students see reading as a natural part of life, not just a “school thing.” The Book Boutique is how we turbocharge our reading efforts. For you librarians who are not also gearheads, turbocharge means to add speed or energy to something. We add energy to our reading program by getting books into the community. Fourth grader Willow Cummings told me, “I have over 200 books at home. Most of them came from the Boutique.”

Earning Book Bucks

Finn McDonough buys a nonfiction book for his collection.

Students earn Book Bucks in several ways. The most common is by passing Accelerated Reading quizzes on the books they read. They also earn by meeting their individual reading goals, doing “Ten Book Challenges,” and mastering math facts. They save their “money” for a variety of things, none of which are cheap trinkets that would quickly end up in a landfill. From having lunch with a teacher to reading to kindergarten classes to being a library helper, students make choices about how to spend their Bucks. By far, however, the most popular choice is to go shopping for books in the Book Boutique. Our program is successful, and our readers are happy. That said, we sometimes field questions from outside our community about why we don’t just give the books away and dump the token economy. The answer is simple—we want our students to experience the pride that comes with meeting goals, and we believe that students value what they earn. “I feel so proud when I earn Book Bucks and get to buy books,” says second grader Kelsey Chelberg.

 Building the Book Boutique

Our Book Boutique didn’t happen overnight; the concept has been growing and changing for the eight years I’ve been the librarian here. But building one can be easy. It just takes space and books. Not all librarians have the luxury of having an office, much less one they can give up for a Book Boutique. My colleague in the library at St. Croix Falls Middle School simply added a tall bookshelf near her desk—that’s the “Boutique.” A good weeding will also lead to shelf space for a free bookstore. Of course, having shelf space is the easy part; filling the shelves with books is a bit more challenging. I’ve used three main methods to stock the boutique.
  • Donations. I communicate with the community through Facebook and often remind parents and others that I welcome their old children’s books. We placed a tote in the school lobby, and it often is filled with donations. Most of the books are suitable for the Book Boutique, and those that aren’t get dropped off at the thrift store.
  • Thrift Shopping and Garage Sales. I can’t lie. I am a shopaholic when it comes to spending a quarter (or a dollar) here and there for used books at garage sales and thrift stores. I have a circuit that I shop every few weeks, and when I hit sales, I really stock up. I do spend my own money sometimes but not always. Our local STAR Education Foundation and parent organization have been very generous. Additionally, the James Patterson Foundation granted the Book Boutique $3,000 two years ago.
  • Make use of inexpensive booksellers. First Book Marketplace offers very low-priced new books and often offers entire boxes of books to Title I schools for just the price of shipping. Similarly, Scholastic Book Orders often have low-priced books, and some teachers even donate their Scholastic Points to me, and I get oodles of nice paperbacks for the boutique.
Getting students to read books is the goal of most elementary school librarians, right? Whether or not incentive programs or goal-setting protocols are used, having a free bookstore can be a great way to get books into the hands and homes of students.  After all, students who have books are more likely to read them. 
Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a nationally board certified teacher and a winner of the 2017 I Love My Librarian Award. Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergarten to graduate students. The library media specialist for the St. Croix Falls (WI) School District, she also teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, blogs for MiddleWeb, and consults with local school districts.
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Christine Suhr

I was inspired to start my own store after reading your article. I was wondering though what you "charge" for the books. Do you have denominations on your bucks or is it one buck for one book? Thank you for sharing your idea.

Posted : Mar 02, 2018 12:51

Molly Lavilla

Great idea!!!!

Posted : Jan 12, 2018 11:39

Tara Brown

Fantastic! I love everything about this...so inspiring! Thank you for sharing! :-)

Posted : Dec 25, 2017 07:46

Rita Platt

I am so happy you enjoyed it!

Posted : Dec 25, 2017 07:46


I’ve shared this to my Facebook page, but I just wanted to share here what a marvelous idea this is! Thanks for sharing it with us!

Posted : Dec 24, 2017 11:10

Rita Platt

I am so glad you liked it!

Posted : Dec 24, 2017 11:10


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