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Making Eyes Light Up

Jane Wolfe is the Light Up for Literacy awardee

Published: June 1, 2024
Last Updated: June 7, 2024

Making Eyes Light Up

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Jane Wolfe, the recipient of 2024's Light Up For Literacy award.

Inside Melba’s, a restaurant and laundromat on the corner of Elysian Fields and North Claiborne Avenues in New Orleans, one of the first things that catches the eye is copies of book covers hanging from the ceiling, authored by locals as well as national celebrities. The common thread among them is that each author has visited Melba’s and signed books for customers as part of the Eat and Read at Melba’s literacy program. The driving force behind this program is Jane Wolfe, the recipient of this year’s Light Up For Literacy award.  

It all began when Wolfe, then co-owner of Melba’s, created a reading nook inside the laundromat, so that children could enjoy books while their parents did laundry. “When I saw what it did and how excited the kids got about reading, I started thinking about the adults as well,” said Wolfe. She spent months wondering how to make the adults feel this same sense of excitement.  

At the time, Wolfe was dividing her time between her businesses in her native New Orleans and her doctoral program at Harvard. She visited one of her professors, Jonathan Walton, during his office hours and noticed a stack of his new book, The Lens of Love. Wolfe offered to buy a hundred copies of the book to give away to adults coming to Melba’s for lunch, and she invited Walton down to New Orleans to meet the customers. Watching Walton sign books, Wolfe “saw the Ivory Tower come down to everyday people.”  

In that moment, Melba’s literacy program was born. At least 160 authors have now visited the restaurant. Melba’s supplies one hundred copies of each author’s book to give away to customers, who chat with the author and get their books signed. In addition to author events, Melba’s stocks books for sale in their bookcase; customers who buy a book can get a free poboy or daiquiri. Younger readers have access to a book vending machine—all they have to do is ask, and the staff gives them tokens for the machine, free of charge. To date, Eat and Read at Melba’s has given away more than twenty thousand books. 

No matter how many books she places into the hands of readers, Wolfe never tires of seeing the look on someone’s face when they receive something unexpected, and she cherishes the opportunity to create connections between authors and community members. “I didn’t realize I was going to see so many eyes light up,” enthused Wolfe. “It’s still my favorite thing.”  

 

Dr. Megan Holt is executive director for One Book One New Orleans and the Words & Music Festival. In 2021 she gave a TEDx Talk titled “Becoming Part of the Story” on becoming an adult literacy advocate. The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities recognized her efforts in 2023 with the Light Up for Literacy award.