NBF Board Member Steve Leveen Talks About Innovations in Reading
Steve Leveen is not only a member of our Board of Directors; he's also the co-founder, along with his wife, Lori, of Levenger, sponsor of our Innovations in Reading Prize. We recently conducted a short interview with Steve to talk about Levenger and the Innovations program, as well as Steve's experiences with some past winners of the prize.
National Book Foundation: First, tell us a little bit about Levenger. How did the company come to be, and what was your vision when you began? How has that vision evolved over time?
Steve Leveen: My wife, Lori, and I began Levenger in our Boston townhouse in 1987 by selling halogen lamps for readers. We advertised “Serious Lighting for Serious Readers” in a one-inch ad in The New Yorker. Those blessed New Yorker readers did call and write for our catalog, and thus we began in that small way. Fairly quickly we expanded our offering to other “Tools for Serious Readers,” including leather goods, paper and pens, and high-end books though our publishing arm. Today we design and sell mostly products that enable customers to balance digital and heritage technologies—for example, a leather case holding an iPad and paper.
Our purpose is to inspire productivity, and to enrich customers’ experiences as readers, writers and thinkers. Levenger customers are professionals of all types, but a common denominator is that they read—both for their work and for enjoyment. Reading—literacy—is where all good things begin: the creation and improvement of civilization, the enlightenment and fulfillment of individuals. We think it’s entirely within our broader purpose to support libraries and literacy programs, museums and other cultural organizations that promote reading and literacy.
This is one way that Levenger practices Conscious Capitalism, which shifts the business model from profit for profit’s sake to profit with a deeper purpose. For example, we established a Partnering for Good program in which we team up with nonprofit institutions to make products based on their collections, then pay royalties to the institutions based on sales. Our most recent example is the book that we published with the Library of Congress on the first map to name America.
We also provide cash donations through our small Levenger Foundation to artisan groups whose products we offer, in support of literacy programs in their communities. This past year we made these donations to communities in the U.S., Haiti, India and Thailand.
NBF: What inspired you to sponsor the Innovations in Reading Prize via the Levenger Foundation?
SL: Innovations in Reading could not be better aligned with the mission of the Levenger Foundation. The prize seeks out and rewards those doing new things to promote literacy and reading, often for those who need the help most.
NBF: You’ve personally spent time with numerous winners of the Innovations in Reading Prize over the years. What are your overall impressions of the folks you’ve met and the work they do?
SL: Although I have nothing to do with the selection of winners, I do enjoy meeting them as I travel the country and learn more about their good work. They are passionate people—on fire to help people catch the power of reading.
I visited with the iconoclastic librarians at the Maricopa County Library District in Phoenix (2009 winners) and was so inspired, I wrote a blog about their work:
A 2010 winner was Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia, and I was able to get tours of San Francisco’s Only Independent Pirate Supply Store and, in Washington, DC, the Museum of Unnatural History at 826DC. What decidedly strange and inspiring places they are for young people to hone their reading and writing skills!
When I visited with 2012 winners June Porter and Leslie Reese of the Reading Against the Odds program in Chicago, they invited me to come read to their folks from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which I’ll be doing—with gusto—later this year.
Another 2012 winner, Inger Upchurch, is going to connect with Levenger staff members in Memphis. That’s where she does her important work with Real Men Read and where Levenger has its distribution and call centers. Who knows what good things might transpire as a result?
NBF: As a member of the National Book Foundation’s Board of Directors, where would you like to see the Innovations in Reading program go in the future?
SL: Now that we have a growing number of alumni prize winners, it’s time to ask them for ideas on how the National Book Foundation can be of further help. The Levenger Foundation is excited about expanding our small part in this great cause.