A New Jersey family that opened a donation-based bookstore last summer is on a mission to deliver 1,000 free books and educational resources to children and families along the East Coast.
Kaila Boulware Sykes, co-founder of the Hidden Gems Literary Emporium, and her husband, Raymond Sykes, are planning to embark on their second 1,000 Free Book Tour this July to "reignite" the love of reading in communities from New Jersey to Florida.
It all started last summer when the family opened up their first bookshop, which is now filled with tens of thousands of free books and nestled in the middle of an art gallery in New Brunswick.
The idea came to them after they had a bad experience while shopping at a bookstore in Ocean County, New Jersey.
Boulware Sykes and her husband were on the hunt to get some books for their 2-year-old son, Truth Imanu’el Sykes. Instead, while walking through the store, they were met with uncomfortable stares and whispers from other customers, Boulware Sykes said.
They were the only family of color in the store, she recalled. When they got back into the car, they were filled with frustration, she said. Immediately, the book-loving parents wanted to start their own bookstore where everyone could feel welcome.
They also wanted all of their books to be free.
On June 6, 2021, Hidden Gems Literary Emporium opened to the public. On opening day, the shelves were filled with 10,000 donated books of all genres and for all ages. There was also a line of 500 people waiting to get their hands on one of them.
Boulware Sykes said the news about their bookstore spread like wildfire, and soon they were getting donations from all over the world.
"It just snowballed into a huge just library of love," Boulware Sykes said. "Since then, people have donated over 40,000 books."
The store is run entirely on donations. Sometimes customers will donate $1, and other times they will dole out $100, she added.
However, even if someone comes in with empty pockets, Boulware Sykes will always tell them to take as many books as they need.
"We really feel like it's important for people to have a place where they don't feel like money is a barrier for them to get books and educational resources for themselves and especially for their children," she said.
The goal of the shop is to "completely eliminate that barrier for people," she said. In fact, their motto is: "We work for people. We don't work for profit."
In July 2021, Boulware Sykes and her family hit the road for their first book tour dropping off free books, puzzles and other educational resources to several communities from New Jersey to Atlanta.
"The smiles and the excitement that we get from people… it's hard to describe the way it makes us feel," she said.
The family is determined to hit the road again this summer, so they can spread the message that reading is not just necessary, but it's also fun. More importantly, it promotes cultural acceptance, Boulware Sykes said.
Their Chevy minivan, which was used during their first 1,000 Free Book Tour, has since broken down. Now, the family is raising funds to create a new mobile library, so they can continue their mission of inspiring others to read, Boulware Sykes added.
"You're never too young or too old to learn something new," she said.
Their shop is open Monday through Thursday. When they are not busy running the store, the family holds free book festivals at community and school events within New Jersey to continue spreading "love through literacy."