By Susan Campbell, Thunder Radio
According to the U.S. Census, nearly 14 percent of the residents of Coffee County do not have a high school diploma. Those without a diploma are less likely to be employed, make lower taxable income, and earn an average of $8,000 per year less than graduates.
Working to change that since 1988 has been the Literacy Council, whose mission is to make basic adult education accessible to residents of Coffee County. The Literacy Council assists adults who are trying to earn their high school equivalency diploma by offering classes and by paying for the cost of taking the HiSET (High School Equivalency Test).
The Literacy Council, founded by Loretta Welsh, is now part of a 13-county region and overseen by the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance. Since the program was launched, over 100 inmates in the Coffee County Jail have passed the HiSET. Also, in 2019, Coffee County ranked first in number of program graduates in the 13-county region.
Much of the funding for providing the classes comes from sales from The Book Shelf, a used book store that opened in its current location in Northgate Mall six years ago.
“The Literacy Council used to do big fundraisers, and then when the 2008 recession hit we didn’t feel it was right to be asking businesses for money,” said Dot Watson, member of the Literacy Council and the force behind The Book Shelf.
“We decided that there wasn’t a better way to promote literacy than by selling books, so we started taking books to the county fair to sell,” she said. “It took us two years to convince the owners of the mall to let us move in. They now provide our space for free.”
The Book Shelf is now in its third mall location, having outgrown previous locations. While there is no exact inventory, books in The Book Shelf number in the thousands, with thousands more in storage because there is no more room.
The books are all donated by supporters, and most sell for $3 or less, with the exception of the Civil War collection and a few other collectible and First Edition books, which are specially priced.
In addition to supporting adult education, books have been donated to the Coffee County Jail. The Tennessee Valley Woodworkers designed and built book shelves and, with help from Coffee County Public Defender John Nichol, a library now has a home in the jail, totally inmate-managed.
The Book Shelf has helped the Literacy Council purchase materials, pay classroom utilities, wi-fi, teacher salaries and 12 computers for local adult education classrooms. Books and computers have been donated to the Blue Monarch, a Coffee County residential facility for women recovering from drug and alcohol addiction and their children. The Book Shelf, in collaboration with individuals and civic organizations, has donated books to the Little Free Libraries located across the county, participated in financial literacy classes for elementary-aged children, donated books for summer reading programs at both the Manchester and Lannom libraries, and donated books to senior centers and the Coffee County Imagination Library.
Staffed almost entirely by volunteers, the Book Shelf currently has limited hours due to the coronavirus, but is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. No customers are allowed in the store, but staff and volunteers are still receiving requests by telephone, email and Facebook. A table is located at the entry to help customers who are searching for books. Donations are also being accepted.
To learn more about The Book Shelf or the Literacy Council, visit The Bookshelf, a Used Bookstore on Facebook, or www.needahighschooldiploma.com on the worldwide web. Call them at 931-273-8001 or 931-842-0373.
Helping customers with customer donations and requests at The Book Shelf are, from left, Jennifer Russell, store manager Mendy Tant and store founder Dot Watson. – Photo by Susan Campbell