A free book program in Camden expands into an old Quaker meeting house

“This is the only organization I know that actually stands out on the street corner or goes to a place and puts books in the hands of the readers. It’s the connection of the book and the person who is actually gonna read it.”

Here’s a question. What is a city on the Delaware River that is gritty, has a decent skyline, has the best cheesesteaks in the area, and is home to the 76ers?

Hint: It’s not the City of Brotherly Love. The answer is Camden, and the city has started to look a lot different recently. 

Thanks to some investment (which hasn’t been without controversy or concerns over gentrification), many of the parking lots near the riverfront are now home to an American Water headquarters, and a Hilton hotel, which is the City Invincible’s first hotel in over 50 years.

These buildings, along with the 76ers practice facility and mainstays such as City Hall and Cooper Hospital form a mini skyline of sorts for people to glance over the river from Philly. 

Even though Camden is a city with eyes on the future, there are still reminders of the many iterations of its past. One of those reminders is the Newton Friends’ Meetinghouse in Downtown Camden on Cooper Street.

The Newton Friends Meetinghouse was built in 1872 to serve as a spot for people of the Quaker faith to pray. It’s still in use today, though the purpose it serves has changed and expanded over the years.

Every Saturday from 9-2, it serves as a free bookstore for Camden residents and for the greater Delaware Valley. The bookstore is an extension of the Free Books Project (formerly the Camden County Pop-Up Library) headed by Tom Martin.

Martin had always dreamed of opening a free bookstore. Since 2017, he has handed out books on the streets of Camden, and him and his team installed “book arks” around the city to house books. 

After attending a few meetings at the meetinghouse, he found willing partners for the bookstore with the folks at the Meetinghouse. Cindi Kammer, the Meetinghouse’s clerk, was looking for more ways for the community to use the building anyway, and so the Free Books Project and the Meetinghouse were a match made in heaven.

“I started attending meetings here every once in a while,” explains Martin. “I started talking to Cindy and she was mentioning how she wants to utilize the building to help the Camden community. And I was like, I want to do the same thing. I need a building and she needs a cause. So we took my cause and her building. It ended up being perfect.”

The cause of literacy is a hard one to argue against, and it’s one that Martin has been taking up for a while now. Getting books into the hands of children is important and it’s something that Sean Brown, an East Camden resident and book ark volunteer has witnessed firsthand. 

“My mom was a teacher and I grew up with a lot of books,” says Brown. “But, unfortunately, a lot of younger people are more inclined to digitally read books than read a paper book. Research shows that having a book in your hands and actually being able to read it is very helpful. But also children read more when their parents read. I can’t tell my children to read if I don’t read. So to set an example, we have reading time in our house.”

Brown sets the example by reading a ton of business books, and his kids are big into the Dog Man series. There’s a little bit of everything at the bookstore and that includes popular titles such as those by James Patterson and self-help books. There are also books that are written in Spanish as well for Camden’s Hispanic population. Julie Beddingfield, owner of Inkwood Books in Haddonfield, was a huge help in making this happen.

“We have books in Spanish that are primarily thanks to Julie purchasing them,” explains Martin. “Last year we got a $5,000 grant from the Domenica Foundation to purchase books in Spanish. We have a giant Spanish-speaking population in Camden and we haven’t really tapped into that market.”

Beddingfield always had a book in her hands when she was young because her parents didn’t want to hear their children complain about being bored. Her love of reading grew and grew, and eventually she met Martin. Beddingfield appreciated the simplicity of Martin’s goal, which was to get books into the hands of people that needed them. 

“Because I work in books for a living, I work with a lot of literacy organizations,” says Beddingfield. “This is the only organization I know that actually stands out on the street corner or goes to a place and puts books in the hands of the readers. It’s the connection of the book and the person who is actually gonna read it.”

Lachisha Laws and her goddaughter Zania Sims of Sicklerville have been familiar with the Free Books Project for years. Sims has been an avid reader her whole life, and likes the fact that the books are free.

“I like that you can get away in reading,” explains Sims. “Sometimes not everything is going as planned in reality. So you could use a fantasy book or any type of book in general to get away from it, and there’s a lot of books that have helped me get away from it. 

“Not everyone has a lot of money to spend on books and this place will help people out a lot.”

Right now the plan is to continue to grow the free bookstore and get more visitors there. Even though not a ton of people live in downtown Camden, the bookstore is located up the street from Walter Rand Transportation Center, which is Camden’s main transit hub. Beddingfield would like to see the bookstore expand to offer more services as well.

“I really think it would be great to have all sorts of books for everybody and have a place where groups can come,” explains Beddingfield. “Maybe it’s a senior center or maybe it’s an after-school program and they can come and we do storytime and everyone leaves with books.”

For more information, follow the Free Book Project on their Facebook page, The Free Books Project.