Not too far from Temple lies a small bookstore that makes a large impact within the North Philadelphia community. In an effort that began five years ago to revitalize a once-booming Susquehanna Avenue, the idea for a used bookstore was created, and Tree House Books was born.
While it is known to sell African-American and children’s books, Tree House also produces a biannual community magazine titled The Ave.
“The magazine is one of our core programs,” said Darcy Sebright, the executive director of Tree House Books. “For about a year and a half, we’ve met every Wednesday evening.”
Every week, community members of all ages come together to attend workshops where they write their contributions to The Ave. The magazine is named The Ave because of the bookstore’s location on Susquehanna Avenue. It is distributed free of charge throughout the neighborhood.
“Some kids come here for tutoring, and they choose to come back [for the magazine workshop],” Sebright said. “It’s so counter-cultural to what other kids are doing. It surprises me every time.”
Darren Brown, 13, has been working with Tree House for several years.
He said the magazine is an important aspect of the community.
“You can see the hidden talents of the neighborhood kids, and if the people are feeling something, they can express it in art,” Brown said.
Tree House Books is a nonprofit organization that offers services including tutoring, junior staff member and summer programs.
“We gave away as many books as we sold last year,” Sebright said. “The things we do here, other bookstores aren’t doing.”
The mission of Tree House Books is “to grow and sustain a community of readers, writers and thinkers in North Central Philadelphia.”
Youth who attend Tree House Books do a lot of “thinking” while engaging in chess, music, gardening and most recently, theater art.
The bookstore’s playhouse area is used to show movies and present open mic performances. Temple theater students have practiced in the playhouse for their productions.
Stephanie Cryor, a sophomore theater major, volunteers twice a week at the bookstore, helping youth with homework and playing theater games with them.
“They have been excited to participate,” Cryor said. “Tree House has a positive energy to it, which I think the community needs.”
Cryor appreciates Tree House’s desire to promote creativity in the community. She plans to help some of the junior staff members create their own works to perform at Tree House Books.
Core volunteer staff member Star Bocasan said Tree House is unique because of all the different people who work and attend the bookstore.
“It’s an interesting dynamic,” Bocasan said. “I think the bookstore is helpful for the kids and for us because it helps us to know the community we are in.”
In addition to adult volunteers, there are at least seven junior staff members who also lend their hands to the efforts of Tree House after school and on the weekends.
On Saturdays, the bookstore can see as many as 30 locals in attendance at workshops.
Sebright describes the junior staff members as voices for peers and younger kids.
Nyseem Smith, 14, is a local junior staff member who assists in tutoring children, maintaining the store and contributing to The Ave. However, Smith claims that his favorite aspect of working at the bookstore is taking on the role of a mentor.
“When someone is having a bad day, I talk to them,” he said. “That’s my favorite thing to do.”
To become a junior staff member, students must successfully complete an application and interview process. Junior staff members help out during the week.
Dr. Eli Goldblatt, an English professor at Temple, also works with Tree House Books through New City Writing: Institute for the Study of Literature, Literacy and Culture, a program that develops connections between the Temple writing program and neighborhood centers and projects.
Sebright and Goldblatt would like for Tree House Books to be able to provide more programs for adults that are relevant to the concerns of the community.
Last year, in the aftermath Sgt. Patrick McDonald’s murder at 17th and Colorado streets, just a few blocks away from Tree House Books, the store held a program that brought residents from the community together to discuss the violence in the area.
“People needed a place to come and talk about these things,” Goldblatt said. “If we could help develop the voice of the community addressing violence, I think we would have done something.”
Program Coordinator Michael Reid said by working with the materials that they have and creating something good, the bookstore is a metaphor for life.
“Considering the circumstances that a lot of students in this community come from,” Reid said, “they are more equipped to handle life problems because [of their experiences at Tree House Books].”
Keisha Frazier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.