A couple months ago, I opened an email and immediately hovered the cursor over the delete button. But something made me stop and read it. And I’m glad I did. The email was from P.A. (Paul) Kane, who runs his own website over at Buffalo Mud. Paul mentioned that he volunteers regularly at Dog Ears Bookstore and Cafe, a little hidden gem over on Abbott Road in South Buffalo. He suggested I might write a blog post about it.
Little Hidden Gem
So last week, I headed over to Dog Ears Bookstore and Cafe. And hidden gem is a perfect description of this place.
My first impression walking in the door, was “What a cute little cafe.” And it is little, the cafe that is. Tiny, in fact. But as it turns out, the menu is anything but cute, it’s downright impressive. There is definitely something for everyone. The regulars seem to genuinely like the staff here too. That’s important.
I spent a few minutes getting a cup of tea and walking around the first floor taking pictures, while I waited for Tom McDonnell, the store’s Executive Director. I notice that this place is full of real Buffalo charm. It’s a mixture between tables to eat or work at, cozy little nooks to read in, and books. Tons of books. It’s then that I notice the amount of books for sale that are written by local authors (evidenced by the signage pointing them out). Later I would find out that this bookstore offers the largest variety of books by local authors in the city. Cool. There are lots and lots of books about Buffalo too. Love it.
The ‘Literary Center’
When Tom is ready, he and I head up to the Literary Center via the open circular staircase. There is a literary quote on the tread of each stair. There are fifteen stairs and Tom explains that five of the quotes are from classic literature, five are poetry, and five are from children’s literature. The authors of the quotes are written on the backs of the open treads. Sweet. I’m starting to fall in love with this place.
The entire second floor opens up to the Literary Center. It’s decorated with children in mind, but it’s very comfortable for adults as well. It’s here that the learning and the fun takes place.
The Man Behind the Books
Once upstairs, Tom speaks humbly but confidently about the buying of the building in 2006, and the journey to what Dog Ears Bookstore has become today. That is, a cafe (which was an existing cafe before as Caz Coffee Cafe), a non-profit book store and Literary Center. You see Tom has a masters degree in education, but instinctively knew he didn’t want to teach in the traditional sense. He wanted to teach both adults and children to have a passion for reading and writing. He chose a not-for-profit bookstore to realize his dream.
I should mention that the whole time we talked, Tom, who is the Executive Director, busied himself with the mundane tasks of readying the literary center for the weekly “Puppy Tales” story hour. And when I say mundane, I mean it. How many Executive Directors do you know who would count vanilla wafers into individual servings, load straws into juice pouches, count out scissors and bottles of glue for each of the 22 children who would be arriving soon? Not many, I can tell you that.
Although I’ve just met him, I get a strong sense that he wouldn’t have it any other way. Doing this stuff himself I mean. It just wouldn’t occur to him to get someone else to do it for him.
And he speaks freely and humbly about Dog Ears the whole time. This is clearly his life’s work. His love and passion for it come through loud and clear. What an amazing thing it is to watch someone go about living their passion. It’s days like these I love my job.
Tom talks about the community. It’s very important to him. He not only says this, he lives it. It seems to come naturally to him. You live in a community, you support that community, and you serve that community. It’s who he is. And it’s what Dog Ears Bookstore has become.
Dog Ears, A Not For Profit
The book store is supported through book sales, as well as through grants from several sources with Tom doing the bulk of the grant writing himself. The website lists several sponsors of the programs that take place here. Tom mentions Chris Scanlon, their local congressman and Erie County as being big supporters of their programs, among many others. The sponsors help to keep the costs of the programs at little or nothing for the participants.
There are also many volunteers who keep the place humming, running the day to day operations of the bookstore. Tom says they couldn’t survive without their volunteers.
Any profits go back into three things: programming, the upkeep of the building, and salaries for Tom and the Volunteer Coordinator, Lynn Carloni. They are the only two paid employees. The cafe is self-supportive and the salaries there come from cafe proceeds.
The Programs at Dog Ears
A moment ago, I mentioned programs. Sure Dog Ears is a bookstore, but it’s really much more than that. The Literary Center on the second floor is host to at least seven programs. The children’s programs are:
- Puppy Tales – more about that in a couple of minutes
- Movie Night – 3rd Friday of each month, age appropriate children’s movie
- Summer Reading and Writing Camps – six weeks in the summer
- After School Homework Help Program
The adult programs are:
- Dog Ears Book Club – all welcome – nominal fee
- 4th Friday Poetry Night – small donation to cover snacks
- Writer’s Workshop – runs in 6 week blocks – moderated by John Schreier
Information on all of these can be found at the book store. The Literary Center is also available to rent for book clubs and other meetings at $25/hour.
Puppy Tales at Dog Ears
Soon enough, it was time for the kids to come in for Puppy Tales. I’m not going to lie. I had intended to leave before the program started, so I could go through my photos to be sure I got all that I needed before I headed across town for another appointment.
But when the kids began to arrive and I saw the way they related to ‘Mr. Tom’ I couldn’t drag myself away. They were all (22 of them!) absolutely enthralled with Tom, who had taken his seat in the rocker, and spent a few minutes just talking to the kids. And listening. One little guy announced, “Tom, Tom, we have a new baby!” So cute!
Once everyone had arrived, Tom talked with the kids about the letters of the day. Colors. Numbers. Days of the week. Then he read them a book, inserting his own funny comments, cracking the kids up all throughout. He was really in his element now. As I walked around taking photos, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. This is truly what Tom is meant to do. And this is why the kids were so excited coming in, and why the parents and grandparents didn’t seem to mind having to stay. It’s because they were enjoying it as much as the kids!
For these lucky little ones, Tom is laying the foundation of what he calls the four phases of reading. Learning to read. Reading to learn. Reading for content. And reading for life. What a wonderful philosophy.
I can tell you this, if the other programs at Dog Ears are half as good as Puppy Tales (and I hear that they are), any one of them would be worth taking part in.
I realize I talk about gratitude pretty often in these posts. What can I say, I choose to live gratefully. So, today I’m grateful to Paul Kane for sending me that random email. It’s things like this that make me love this town even more. Just to know that Buffalonians still reach out to each other to offer ideas for creativity. And I’m even more grateful to have gotten to know Dog Ears Bookstore, with all the amazing things that are happening at this small, local business.
After all, this is what Buffalo is about. We have great people all over the city doing their thing, in unassuming ways, helping to rebuild our town by strengthening one community at a time. And don’t forget those who offer ideas to people like me. I am fortunate to be able to meet some of them through my work. Tom McDonnell and his non-profit bookstore are now among my favorites.
Dog Ears’ website is linked above, but you should really visit to see the place for yourself. It’s located at 688 Abbott Road in South Buffalo. Plan on grabbing a bite to eat. And while you’re at it, pick up a couple of books. Try to make at least one of them by a local author. Also, be prepared to fall in love with the place.
That’s enough pontificating for one day, I’ve got to go. I have to call Tom McDonnell to see if I can get my granddaughter into the next session of Puppy Tales.
**p.s. Dog Ears is having their annual fundraiser on April 25; the theme this year is the Roaring Twenties and more information will be available soon at the store.