Why not here? – Sit down with a good book

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The idea

In 2014, the UK National Literacy Trust has teamed up with the British art group called Wild in art raise awareness and fund literacy programs in disadvantaged communities. The concept: To make and paint 50 public benches that looked like famous literary works in the form of open books placed all over London, with homages to Sherlock Holmes, William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and others.

A book bench in Naperville, Illinois honored Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends” in 2017. (Photo by Carmela Martino, @cmartinoauthor)

Not only did the project, dubbed “Books About Town”, beautify the city from July to September, but each bench was then auctioned off to inject much-needed funds into regional literacy programs.

Soon, other communities around the world followed suit. In 2017, the city of Naperville, Illinois launched a similar program, with 15 benches honoring children’s book series like Harry Potter and Curious George. Danielle Tufano, executive director of the Downtown Naperville Alliance, which organized the effort, said it was “a way to encourage people to come downtown and hopefully shop and dinner while they are here”.

In 2018, in Lexington, Kentucky, several local arts groups partnered with the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning to produce 37 fiberglass book benches – all based on works by Bluegrass State writers like Hunter S. Thompson – “to celebrate Kentucky’s literary heritage, encourage reading and provide a resting place .” Montgomery, Alabama, pioneered its own version of the concept the following year, with benches taking up permanent positions in area libraries, cultural centers and public schools.

Here in Sacramento, as the state capital, we could honor California authors, including those with ties to our city, such as Joan Didion (who died in December), Cornel West, Raymond Carver, Richard Rodriguez, William T. Vollmann and Mark Twain, who filed histories for the The Sacramento Union which later became a book.

The players

The City of Sacramento Office of Arts and Culture could turn the pages by partnering with local literacy and arts groups to make it a reality here. It would provide paid work and exposure to local artists, promote reading and enliven the town all at once. Downtown Sacramento Partnership and Midtown Association could also organize forces, as well as the Sacramento Public Library system.

The essential

In London, the project has raised over $400,000 for regional literacy programs by auctioning off its 50 benches. In Lexington, area businesses and individuals sponsored benches, which were then auctioned off at a gala at the end of the project. In Naperville, local businesses sponsored benches for $1,200 each, and the cost to produce the benches was approximately $1,000-1,500 each. As for creative pay, in Montgomery a dozen artists were paid $1,000 each to paint the permanent pews there.

However we organize our own business, one thing is certain: celebrating books and public art, while simultaneously helping members of our community, has the potential to become an instant classic.


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