PALMER — Author Alys Culhane created a nonprofit to save books bound for the shredder, joining partners in a grassroots effort that’s now shared more than 60,000 volumes with readers around Alaska.
Culhane’s love of literature showed on a recent Saturday as she took a break from sorting used books spilling out of a storage unit behind her.
She recited by memory lines from her favorite book, Beryl Markham’s memoir “West with the Night,” her words flowing softly: “How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at his loom.”
After the words faded into silence, Culhane returned to her own work, weaving order from layers of books being readied for distribution around the state.
Culhane created the Bright Lights Book Project, a Palmer-based nonprofit aimed at salvaging used books and getting them back into the hands of Alaskans, at the end of 2019. A year later, she stopped freelance writing and fully committed to the endeavor.
Two years ago, while at the Valley Community for Recycling Solutions facility near the Mat-Su landfill, Culhane saw numerous boxes of books waiting to be shredded.
“I can’t stand the thought of books being shredded,” Culhane said. “It just tears at my heart.”
She rummaged through those boxes and started pairing books with organizations and people in the community. That’s when the idea behind the book project took off.
“Day care centers wanted the kid’s books, La Fronteras (immersion school) wanted the Spanish algebra books,” she said. “That was what got me to thinking this would work.”
Culhane broadened her reach and scoured the internet for places that needed books. She began shipping boxes of books to villages across the state.
Meanwhile, unknown to Culhane, a separate book distribution effort was taking shape in Anchorage. Milena Sevigny, TOTE Maritime’s community relations program manager, agreed to help distribute books across Alaska as part of the BookWaves program run by First Book, a national organization based in Washington, D.C., with a coalition of partners working to get books to Puerto Rico and Alaska.
“Then COVID happened. And here we are with this literally 40,000 books,” Sevigny recalled.
Sevigny and other TOTE families worked to organize and distribute the books. It was during that time that she learned about the Bright Lights Book Project, after she met Culhane by happenstance at a local goat farm.
“It’s all about partnerships,” Sevigny said.
At its start, the project was a scattershot effort.
But in two years, the project has flourished while being run by a volunteer team of eight. In addition to the book shipments around the state, bookshelves containing free books for the public are spread throughout Palmer and restocked regularly. The nonprofit plans to install bookshelves around Wasilla next.
“We’ve gone from 90% shredded to 90% keep,” Culhane said. “I find something by Maurice Sendak and I might then (see) a little child get that book, and to me there’s nothing more rewarding. So, that makes the 60-plus hours of work a week worth it.”
Books for the project have been donated by individuals and the Mat-Su Borough School District and salvaged from the recycling center, in addition to some of the 40,000 books left from the BookWaves project.
Last week, Culhane and Sevigny worked on getting boxes of books ready to be shipped to the Kiita Learning Community in Utqiaġvik. Included in those boxes was a collection of National Geographic magazines spanning decades — from 1970 to 2009 — donated by a woman in Washington state.
“Those could have gone to a landfill. That history could have been lost,” Sevigny said.
Future shipments of books will be sent to Point Hope and Kasigluk, they said.
“There’s so much value in this reuse … this is really an asset that’s being destroyed if we can’t stop it,” said Sevigny, who was recently elected president of the Bright Lights Book Project board.
At the Valley Community for Recycling Solutions at the Mat-Su landfill near Palmer, distribution manager Bill Schmidtkunz and Pete Praetorius — a recycling center board member and Culhane’s husband — spent the afternoon going through a pallet and a large box of books. The pair sort books there for a few hours every Saturday, rifling through about 2,000 pounds of printed material a day on average.
They were unbothered by the loud noises from recycling operations as they worked, occasionally reading a title out loud. The “Idiot’s Guide To Managing Your Money” and a few outdated medical books made them laugh. They picked out the hardbacks and tossed unusable books into a shopping cart.
Occasionally books will catch their eye, like a Bible from 1884, farm books from the 1930s or a book on the sexual behaviors of Roman emperors. Once, they found an Inuit grammar book from 1922 that now resides at the Mat-Su College. It’s one of only a few copies that occupy rare book collections around the state.
As the operation continues to grow, Culhane hopes they can find funding for a bookmobile. In the meantime, the most important step is to establish a permanent location, she said.
The nonprofit currently works out of a short-term storage unit and the Church of the Covenant/Meeting House, space donated by pastor Sarah Welton. They’ve secured funding for the Mat-Su Career and Technical High School to build a 20-by-16-foot building. Now they just need land to put it on.
“We’re going to be limited with our ability to grow if we don’t have a place to operate out of,” Sevigny said.
Sevigny’s husband, a welder, will make drop boxes to be installed before spring for those looking to donate books.
“I realize what a phenomenal thing this has been, particularly on the part of the community to all rally around this,” Culhane said.
For more on how to get involved or where to donate, email email@example.com.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described where many of the books distributed through volunteer efforts would have ended up if not salvaged. About 20,000 of the books distributed through the partnership would have otherwise been shredded and pulped, not sent to the landfill.