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Nearly a month after the financially troubled Thomas Merton Center laid off its staff, one of its board members says she is looking for another sponsor for the books-to-prisoners project Book 'Em.

Book 'Em, a volunteer effort that sends free books to prisoners, has been affiliated with the Merton Center for seven years. But that might end soon, says Book 'Em's Rose Anderson. 

"We just can't let ourselves be crippled and killed by our sponsor," Anderson says. It has been roughly a month since Book 'Em made a shipment to prisoners, she adds -- and for that order she paid $200 of her own money.

Anderson says her project was neglected after the center laid off full-time staff on April 16. The center's 15 volunteer board members have taken over operation since then. 

Book 'Em's events are no longer listed on the Merton Center's online calendar, and Anderson says the group has been locked out of its Sunday meetings. Anderson used to have a key, but she now has to sign one out before the weekend.

"It was just a growing repressive atmosphere ... it got worse after the staff left," she says. "I'm slow to get mad, but I'm mad."

Board members pitch in to keep the center open 20 hours per week -- half of its former hours. Anderson says the reduced hours and limited building access hinder Book 'Em. And though she is a board member, she feels dwarfed by the majority view that the center should adopt stricter policies to rein in costs.

But Anderson's contentious relationship with the Merton Center is nothing new, according to Jonah McAllister-Erickson, board member and former Book 'Em volunteer. A "phenomenal" amount of conflict has developed between Anderson and the staff and board, he says. Most of that tension revolves around building access.

"She wishes to be at the center basically whenever she wants and have free range," McAllister-Erickson says, adding that the center's current situation requires more "give and take" from its projects.

Merton Center co-founder and board member Molly Rush agrees that Anderson's discontent should be taken with "10 grains of salt."

Rush says the center is trying to stabilize, but Anderson's qualms about its project support are shortsighted.

"Right now we're in the process of rebuilding and recovering," Rush says, noting a recent growth in Merton Center members.

Anderson, however, has seen a decline in volunteers, and she is looking at local churches and other organizations for a new start.

Buying the Merton Center's old building at 5125 Penn Ave. was one option Anderson considered. The center moved out last winter after structural problems and heating costs sapped its budget. Currently, the center rents a building next door owned by the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation.

A coalition including The Big Idea bookstore, Pittsburgh Indymedia and Book 'Em recently offered the Merton Center $100,000 for their old headquarters, Anderson says. The bid was refused. 

McAllister-Erickson, who serves on a committee overseeing the building's sale, says the offer was not backed with viable financing. Board President Michael Drohan, also on that committee, says a Realtor hired to handle the sale estimates the building is worth around $150,000.

Like all Merton Center projects, Book 'Em pays the center 5 percent of any money it receives from fundraising or donations. The group also pays $100 rent each month, a fee other Merton groups do not pay.

Drohan says the fee was imposed because Book 'Em occupies the 1,500-square-foot basement of their space -- about half of the total building. And the 5 percent fee wasn't generating much money on its own.

"Their income is very, very meager at the moment," he says. "That's one of their problems."

Book 'Em's woes are not indicative of other Merton Center projects, Rush says. Since moving and eliminating staff, the center has curtailed costs, and more volunteers and donors have shown support.

"I think people are realizing they don't want to let a precious gift to the community leave," she says.

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