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Story time at the laundromat in Bayville

Devising a unique way to promote literacy

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Instead of driving to the school’s parking lot, a Locust Valley school bus parked at a laundromat in Bayville on Feb. 11. The students getting off the bus wore clothes that appeared to be clean, and rather than bringing laundry detergent, they carried boxes filled with nearly 100 books. Romy Bennett, the Locust Valley middle school librarian, led everyone inside. Then it was time to  transform a corner of the laundromat into a children’s library.

The idea occurred to Bennett, she said, after she saw a Facebook photo of Bill Clinton reading to a group of children in a Deer Park laundromat. Intrigued, she read the article that accompanied the photo. “The National Clinton Foundation is working with laundromats throughout the nation to promote literacy,” Bennett said. “Laundromat reading corners for kids are appearing all over the country. I realized we could do the same in Locust Valley on our own.”

Bayville Laundromat owner Anthony Perfetti was all for the idea, agreeing that it would be nice to have a reading corner at his business. 

“The laundromat tends to be busy on weekdays between 4 and 7 p.m. and on weekends,” Perfetti said. “That’s when young children come with their parents. They have nothing to do but play video games and push the laundry carts around.”

Now that would change.

It took just 20 minutes for Bennett, members of her staff and a crew of eighth-graders to set up the library, which will allow its young patrons to keep books they like. The students’ excitement was evident as they shouted the titles of the books — “Curious George,” “Madeline,” “The Prince and the Pauper” — while pulling books out of cartons and adding them to the display shelf. 

When the display was complete, Bennett paused to reflect on the creation of the library. Weeks earlier, she had sent two emails to Locust Valley Central School District teachers and staff, asking them to donate books ranging from pre-school to middle school reading levels. Before she knew it, she had piles of books on her desk, more than 100.

The students at the laundromat, who are all National Junior Honor Society officers, reminisced about their own love of reading since they were children. “I remember reading a lot when I was younger, and it helped me when I got to school,” said Bela Castellanos, an eighth- grader. “My mom used to read to me every night, and then I tried to read myself.”

Her classmate Kieran Moran had similar experiences. “I would read every night, because if you read early on, you’re more likely to be successful in the field of English,” she said.

Chris Cooney, another eighth-grader, looked at the display shelf filled with books and smiled. “If you’re a kid sitting in the laundromat with nothing to do,” he said, “you might as well entertain your brain by reading.”

Bennett said she saw an even bigger picture. “We’re setting up the lending library because we want to give our students, present and future, access to literature,” she explained. “Students who are poorer readers are more likely to struggle academically, and the literacy gap is even wider for children from low-income families who might have less access to books. Those are children who might spend up to two hours per week in the laundromat, because we all know kids make a lot of laundry.”

If children fall in love with the books they’re reading in the laundromat, they’re welcome to keep them, said Bennett, adding that she will replace the books if the supply starts to run low.

And once the library gets rolling, it could be the start of something big, Bennett said. The eighth-graders are already discussing the possibility of creating a regular story hour, during which they would stop by the laundromat to read to the children.

Perfetti said that was good news, but added that he also hoped some of the readers would be bilingual, because many of the parents who come to the laundromat don’t speak English well. Bela Castellanos assured him that that wouldn’t be a problem: She speaks Spanish, English and Portuguese. And her classmate Carly Woolf, who speaks a bit of Italian, said she could also help.

Bennet said that the lending library is a pilot program, and that she and her staff would also like to set up libraries in local playgrounds, as well as another nearby laundromat. But for now, she said, she was satisfied that kids in the Bayville laundromat would have the option to take home a book — and perhaps spark a lifelong love of reading.