Bookseller gets affordable books into children’s hands

Business dating back to 1920s evolves with market

Walking into Interstate Books4School, one would assume it’s a private industrial warehouse for books. Dozens of 6-foot metal bookcases stretch to the back of the building where packing materials and boxes wait to be shipped. But despite the warehouse appearance, Books4School is an open-to-the-public bookstore with a simple goal of getting affordable books into kids’ hands. Don’t let the unconventional environment fool you — owners and siblings Molly and Randy Fields want you and your kids to come and browse Books4School’s stacks.

Books4School began as a supplier of trade books with a 35 percent discount on cover prices, but is now a 50,000-square-foot warehouse home to more than 2 million children’s books, including bilingual Spanish-English books. The original business, Madison News Agency, became Interstate Periodical Distributors, then Interstate Promotional Distributors. This family-ran business now operates as Interstate Books4School, providing discounted books to children from newborns to the 12th grade.

Molly and Randy take pride in being the next generation to run the business. In the early 1920s, their great grandfather, Joseph Tobias, took over the company from his uncle and expanded into magazines, later into paperback books. Molly and Randy’s grandfather, Harry Tobias, also expanded and added warehouse distribution centers across the Midwest. Among the 3,000 titles of magazines, Interstate Periodical Distributors also sold Madison Magazine to local retail outlets.

It was during the mid 1990s that Amy and Marty Fields, parents of Molly and Randy, purchased the family company to continue the legacy. At that point, Marty had identified a need in the local and national industries beyond magazines and newspapers: children’s books.

Bookseller gets affordable books into children’s hands

“[My father] took a good hard look at what the needs were across the nation and what was actually going on with funding, what with teacher’s funding being a lot lower and school districts not having a lot of money,” Molly says. “We started looking at how we source books so we can keep our prices down.”

Molly and Randy attribute the success of the business to their father’s ethos of keeping prices down so their books would be affordable for all. “A lot of people think we’re a nonprofit because it’s such a good mission,” Molly says.

Books4School has deep roots and connections in different communities in Madison. A little over a year ago, Sandburg Elementary School third graders were bussed to the warehouse. The grant-funded trip was meant to get the kids, who were having trouble reading, enthusiastic about books. “There were 75 kids out here running around, and it reinvigorated their joy in books,” Molly says. Randy adds, “We love seeing what effect our books have on kids.”

In addition to being open to the public, Books4School’s customer list includes teachers in the Madison School District, librarians from the Madison Public Library and more. Molly has taken business development to new levels by writing and publishing a couple of her own books for the Reach Out and Read program. This American nonprofit organization works with pediatric clinics across Madison to give families books that focus on inclusivity and promote family reading. Molly has written books on going to the dentist and to the doctor’s office in an effort to diversify protagonists in children’s books. Her hope is to put children readers at ease by creating characters that they can relate to. After Molly wrote the books for the program, Reach Out and Read was eager for more, prompting the release of three titles in the winter in Somali, Arabic and Hmong. “It’s what they needed. We want our books out the door and we want our customers to be happy,” Molly says. “There’s a great need for kids to have books in their hands.”

Books4School is open to the public, online and at the warehouse, located at 201 E. Badger Road. The bookstore is open Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Enjoyiana Nururdin is a Simpson Street Free Press intern at Madison Magazine.