Customers of Oakley’s beloved children’s bookstore Blue Manatee were thrown a curveball last December, when longtime owners John Hutton and Sandy Gross announced they were looking to pass the torch to a new leader. As the surrounding community waited in anticipation to hear what would happen to the neighborhood gem, longtime customer Kevin Kushman saw this as an opportunity to close Cincinnati’s literacy gap.
Inspired by his time mentoring students at Oyler School in Lower Price Hill, Kushman, along with more than 200 other people, submitted an essay detailing his plan to turn the bookstore into a nonprofit to help bridge reading disparities in Cincinnati. In what Kushman describes as a golden ticket scenario, Hutton and Gross chose his essay. They then connected him with Amanda Kranais, another regular customer of the bookstore, on a “social enterprise blind-date” due to their similar vision for the store. The two quickly formed a partnership and drafted a plan to reopen Blue Manatee.
After closing the shop’s doors for three months to focus on building relationships within the community to support its new mission, Kushman and Kranais opened Blue Manatee Literacy Project in April. The nonprofit’s mission aims to close the tri-state’s literacy gap by donating one book for every book purchased in store and online. In its first six months, the store donated close to 8,000 books to children in need. The nonprofit has also formed partnerships with schools in the area to provide relevant reading materials for their students. “We try to not just drop a box of books at a school and say, ‘Hope it works out,’ ” Kushman says. “We take a lot of guidance and direction from the teachers and resource coordinators that work at the specific school.”
Blue Manatee Literacy Project also works with staff members at partnering schools to provide unique programming for students. Currently, they’re working with staff at Oyler School to start a Near Peer Mentoring program between their younger and older students. “We’re going to teach the older students how to make an impact with the younger students and actually instruct them on some foundational skills that they need,” says Kimberly Kemen, board member of the Blue Manatee Literacy Project and teacher/mentor coordinator at Oyler.
Blue Manatee Literacy Project recently partnered with Community Matters, a nonprofit serving Lower Price Hill, to bring a ManaTank to children in the neighborhood. The idea behind the ManaTank is to drop a smaller version of the bookstore into neighborhoods where children wouldn’t normally have access to one. Children would be able to sit and read in the ManaTank or bring books home to read and return. Kushman hopes to have 10 ManaTanks operating throughout the city by the end of 2020.
Solving the city’s reading gap as a collaborative measure and Blue Manatee Literacy Project is an engine inside of a broader literacy network, says Kushman, who adds that other local groups, like Crayons to Computers and the Literacy Network of Greater Cincinnati, have rallied behind them since the start. “This is a community organization,” Kushman says, “not just a store.”
Blue Manatee Literacy Project, 3094 Madison Rd., Oakley, (513) 257-0774