Doing it by the book

It’s about 3,000 miles from Asheville to Morado K’asa, Bolivia, as the condor flies. But an unlikely partnership is bridging that distance, with a boost from several Western North Carolina businesses.

Peace Corps volunteer Megan Sherar, a WNC native, arrived in Morado K’asa nearly three years ago looking for potential projects. In April of 2003, a group of local residents approached her about building a library for their community of 200-plus families. Headed up by an active local youth organization, the group was backed by community leaders.

And here’s where serendipity stepped in. Megan’s brother, Brendan Sherar, is the CEO of the Asheville-based Biblio.com, a Web business dealing in used, rare and out-of-print books. Launched around the time Megan landed in Bolivia, Biblio.com had achieved solid financial stability by the time the library request came through a year later, says Brendan.

“Keeping with our corporate goals and missions, we were in the process of choosing a set of charities and nonprofits which we could benefit by leveraging our success as a company,” he explains. “We choose these by a companywide process of nomination and voting.” Biblio.com decided to underwrite the library project in partnership with the community and the municipality, under Megan’s direction.

Spanish is the official language in most parts of Latin America. But in parts of Peru and Bolivia, only Quechua (the language of the Inca) is spoken. It’s the most widely used Amerindian language today, with some 8 million speakers. Even Xpress readers might be surprised at how many Quechua words they know: coca, condor, gaucho, guano, guanaco, Inca, jerky, lagniappe (by way of American Spanish and New Orleans French) and llama are among the borrowings from that tongue that have made their way into English.

Quechua is also the principal language in Morado K’asa (whose name means “purple open space on a mountain” in that language, according to an online reference dictionary). And that fact helps underscore the critical importance of a library to this indigenous community.

For many Asheville residents, the library is primarily an entertainment venue — a place to get a video, DVD or CD, or to pick up something fun to read. but until recently, Morado K’asa, a several-hour bus ride from the city of Sucre, had schools but no books. Children learned to read Spanish by memorizing words written on a chalkboard, but they had no way to apply their skill. Even literate adults lacked access to books, and most teenagers — still functionally illiterate despite their schooling — migrated to the city, where many ended up doing manual labor. Thus, the library could help connect the isolated community with the surrounding culture — and perhaps with better-paying jobs.

Even in Asheville, building a new library can be a community enterprise, albeit a decidedly more pricey one. More than $500,000 in donations helped fund the new $2.3 million North Asheville Branch Library, for example. The total price tag for the Bolivian project, on the other hand — including building a 650-square-foot native-brick library and equipping it with about 1,000 Spanish-language books, furniture and supplies — was $4,708. Completed in February 2005, the Morado K’asa library is now being actively used and maintained by the community.

The town’s mayor made a key in-kind contribution — having the new library hooked up to the power “grid,” a single line that winds its way through several mountain communities. “If it breaks anywhere along the way, all the lights go out,” says Brendan.

Pleased with the success of its first Bolivian project, Biblio.com founded BiblioWorks, a nonprofit organization, to pursue similar efforts in other Bolivian communities, providing computers as well as books and buildings. “I am pleased and quite proud that our company, employees and its partners have come together in a positive way to create this new organization that can dedicate all of its efforts to creating opportunities for literacy projects in places that desperately need the resources,” says Allen Singleton, chief operating officer of Biblio.com Inc. and president of BiblioWorks. “We look forward to working with the general public, the book-selling community and other industry players to continue to create exceptional educational and literacy opportunities to serve communities in need.”

Among the local businesses partnering with BiblioWorks are Charlotte Street Computers, The Village Link (an Internet service provider), TSA Choice (a phone and data solutions provider) and Purplecat Networks (a Web-hosting and design company). Peter Brezny of Purplecat told Xpress: “Brendan Sherar, Allen Singleton and the rest of the guys at Biblio.com are great! I’ve scrounged computers and helped build/configure them for sending down to the library that they built in Bolivia.” Brezny added, “The idea is simple: help people who need it through literacy and technology.”

Other participating organizations include: the Minnesota-based Books For Africa, which has shipped more than 10 million books since 1988; Better World Books, which funds literacy work around the world; Ubuntu, an entirely free Linux-based, open-source software system; and Books for Change, a Web-based used/rare book service that gives 10 percent of its revenue to charities supporting literacy and education.

BiblioWorks says it’s committed to literacy projects at home as well as abroad. To that end, the nonprofit is participating in fairs and trade shows to build awareness in WNC. The group is also talking with other local nonprofits about organizing book drives to support these efforts.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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