Midtown’s Culture of Reading

by Chris Bavender

I can’t remember a time I wasn’t reading as a child. In fact, you could say I was practically born reading. I received my first books from Dad at Christmas when I was just 6-months-old. Not the typical baby books mind you, but rather 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, The Wizard of Oz and the like. My dad was determined my siblings and I would be readers.

Some of my best memories as a child were taking home the colorful book fair flyer from school and carefully selecting which books I was going to order. And, when I received my first library card and walked into a building filled with books everywhere I looked, my love of reading was solidified. To me, reading takes you on adventures, introduces you to new people and opens up a huge world. Give me a good book and I’m happy for hours.

“There is so much research to support early childhood literacy. In fact, one of our programs, ‘1,000 Books Before Kindergarten,’ helps parents and children reach that important milestone on the road to success in school,” said Melissa Wooten, Area Resource Manager, Glendale Library. “But reading allows a child to learn, to experience a place they have never been, or experience someone else’s point of view, as well as find their point of view reflected — the idea of ‘mirrors and windows.’”

And, it’s at libraries where many children first discover the wonderful world of books. Jessica Trinoskey, branch manager at the College Avenue Branch Library, said books build empathy by “showing the world through the perspective of others.”

“Reading fosters curiosity in an era when school curriculum can be very rigid and children’s schedules tightly regulated. Reading exposes children to new ideas, both real and imaginary,” she said. “Books allow children to explore concepts, world views, and worlds beyond their day-to-day experiences, and to imagine possibilities.”

Even in this digital age, books are still a popular choice.

“Reading and information-seeking are timeless activities. People still visit the library to seek and discover reading materials,” Trinoskey said. “Many of our patrons still prefer the tactile experience of reading a hard copy book but we also assist a lot of people with their laptops and mobile devices.”

Many of the library’s patrons have a personal connection.

“I rarely work a day without hearing from someone that they grew up in this neighborhood and visited the library when we were located across the street or that they used to take their children here and now they bring their grandchildren,” Trinoskey said. “Children walk into the library and talk about how much they love it here, and getting a first library card is still a big deal.”

READ MORE: Midtown’s Public Libraries

Another big deal — and one many remember — buying their first book to take home to read over and over until the pages are dogeared and the cover worn. And, what better place to find your very first book than a neighborhood bookstore such as Kids Ink, which has been open for more than three decades in the Midtown area.

“My last position was at Riley Hospital for Children as the Director of Child Life.  I had the privilege of planning and opening Riley Family Library,” said Kids Ink owner Shirley Mullin. “When I left Riley, I wanted to continue working with children and books.  Opening a children’s store was a natural progression and I felt a way to make quality books available to families in Indianapolis.”

Midtown seemed a logical choice, Mullin said, as she and her family had already lived on Illinois Street for 15 years.

“We’ve had tremendous support from the community plus a cadre of dedicated booksellers!  I have several employees who have been at Kids Ink for over twenty years.  That stability has been one of the  keys to our success,” Mullin said. “Also, my family has been supportive over the years.  My two sons installed the first computers in the store and my grandson facilitated the most recent upgrade.  My daughter worked in the store for a number of years and also both of my daughters-in-law.  Since he has retired, my husband does all of our deliveries to schools.”

When it comes to whether or not children will become lifelong readers, Mullin believes parents are the biggest influence, with teachers second.

“One of the most important behaviors for both parents and teachers is to make sure children see them reading.  Children model the behavior of the important adults in their lives,” she said. “Your father from a very early age was letting you know how important reading was to him. Kids Ink plays a small role in this as we make books available for families and we also encourage parents to read to their children, even the older ones.”

As adults, it can sometimes be difficult to find time to sit and read. That’s where Books and Brews-Broad Ripple comes into play. Patrons can relax with a great book while sipping a cold brew or browse for a book to take home.

“We really are an all ages establishment. The age varies on those actually shopping for books,” said owner Melissa Sandullo. “Often times we have families come in and grab some children’s books to read while they eat. or, we have empty nesters who come to browse and buy. It honestly depends on the day.”

Ten percent of Books and Brews proceeds goes to IndyReads.

“Literacy is something we’re passionate about. There is somewhere around 32 million adults in the U.S. who can’t read,” Sandullo said. “Obviously that has a negative impact on a person’s ability to secure a high-quality, well-paying job. It perpetuates poverty, impacts mental health, as well as job safety. If we can play a role in curtailing this issue, even locally, then we want to at least have a small part in that.”

But there wouldn’t be books to read if it weren’t for those who pen them. Authors like Midtown resident Dan Wakefield based his World War II coming-of-age novel, “Under the Apple Tree.” on his adolescent years in Broad Ripple. “We lived on Winthrop and I attended School 80 which was right next door to the Public Library. I read my way through all the children’s books downstairs,” he recalled with pride. Achieving that milestone allowed him access to the adult collection upstairs. He was fond of Indian lore, and fascinated by stories about Indian boys around his own age he said.

He started his writing career at the Shortridge High School Daily Echo – the country’s only daily high school newspaper – and also was a sports correspondent for the Indianapolis Star. His best-selling novels, Going all the Way and Starting Over were made into films and he created the NBC prime time TV series, James at 15.

“Stories are healing – telling stories makes you feel better,” Wakefield said. “Writing stories does it deeper. As Mark Vonnegut pointed out, ‘You don’t need an agent or permission to write.’”

What is it about books that draws people in? Wakefield sums it up with the first line of a Joan Didion essay – “We tell stories in order to live.”

“Books tell stories,” he said. “To be human is to be a storyteller.”

Author Dan Wakefield, center, interviews Indianapolis poet and jazz musician Carl Hines (l) and author Aleta Hodge (r) during Uncle Dan’s Radio Hour. Photo © 2018 David L. Shank Photography.

Wakefield’s a storyteller who loves to share his passion for the written word and writers in public. “I started a year ago doing Uncle Dan’s Story Hour at the Red Key,” he said. The space was too cramped so for logistical reasons he moved to the Oxford Room upstairs at The Aristocrat Pub & Restaurant. He rechristened it Uncle Dan’s Book Nerds. “It was for all who enjoy reading and talking about books,” he added. Wakefield always included a guest author and they would talk about books and the literary life.

All good things must come to an end and Wakefield’s final Book Nerds program will be May 10 at the Aristocrat. It will feature his good friend, composer, jazz musician and author David Amram. Amram is in town for a performance on May 11 at the Jazz Kitchen, 5377 N. College Ave. and agreed to join Wakefield for the show. “He’s a very generous guy,” Wakefield said.

Wakefield says he plans to continue public events. “I do The Jam with the great saxophone player, Sophie Faught. We do half stories and half music. It’s all about stories — our life is a story. The music tells a story.”

Chris Bavender is a freelance writer in SoBro with more than 20 years’ experience as a print and broadcast journalist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram 

 A version of this article appeared in the April/May 2018 issue of the magazine.