Oh my goodness.
Friends: if you’ve been paying attention to our social media AT ALL over the past few weeks, then you already know that TJ Klune, author of The House in the Cerulean Sea and Under the Whispering Door, is our surprise GoFundMe donor. YES, *that* TJ KLUNE. Not once, but twice (!) he’s helped us reach our fundraising goals to keep the Tome Gnome going!!! I know some of you are wondering how this came to be. Honestly, we’ve been dying to share this story since earlier this year, but now that we’re finally sharing it, it’s difficult to know where to begin. I suppose like with most stories, it’s good to begin at the beginning.
By now, most of you probably know about the Tome Gnome’s origin story – you can read about it here, here, here, and here. When we founded the Tucson Tome Gnome in July 2021, one of the first challenges we faced was determining which tome would be our “inaugural” book to hide around town. We were looking for a book that aligned with our values: we wanted to share a story that we knew would create a joyful and magical reading experience, while also highlighting an author whose work we deeply admired and who focuses on inclusivity and kindness. Once the idea of sharing The House in the Cerulean Sea was proposed, it was a no-brainer decision. You can read more about why we selected the book here. On September 12, 2021, we hid thirty copies of the book all over Tucson and had a blast doing it. We were hooked on hiding books!
As chance would have it, almost exactly one month later (October 13, 2021), TJ randomly stopped into Mostly Books to sign their stock of his books. Of course, many of you know that one of the Gnome’s co-founders (Jody Hardy) is the manager at Mostly Books (although at that time, those of us behind the gnome were still operating anonymously, LOL). Jody was insanely excited. Like, she was seriously freaking out at the sheer luck of it. She didn’t spill the beans about the Tome Gnome, but instead she talked to TJ about the possibility of joining us in Tucson for the Festival of Books in March 2022. So if you enjoyed seeing TJ at the Tucson Festival of Books, you all can thank Jody for that (thanks Jody!). And this Gnome (Emily) moderated his panel with V.E. Schwab… so it was a HUGE, nerdy, book-loving win all around!
ANYWAY, while TJ was at the store that fateful day in October 2021, Jody took this lovely photo for the store’s social media accounts:
Flash forward a few months: we hid books again in October and November 2021 (it was so fun!), and then we took a much-needed break in December and January to regroup and decide if the Tome Gnome was something we could really afford to continue doing. We all agreed that it was an amazing project, but it was also an expensive project (we were paying for everything out of our own pockets at that time). While debating what to do, we heard from a reporter (the lovely Elvia Verdugo) from This is Tucson, who wanted to do a story about the Tome Gnome. We were shocked and excited! Of course we accepted – and agreed that it was a sign from the universe that we needed to keep the Tome Gnome going one way or another. After Elvia’s story was published in This is Tucson on January 26, 2022, it was then picked up for inclusion in the Sunday edition of the Arizona Daily Star.
With that article popping up all over Tucson, we started hearing from many people who wanted to help fund the Tucson Tome Gnome to ensure that it could keep going. At the time we weren’t really sure what the best approach would be to raise money… so we calculated how much it would cost to hide 30 books every month for the remainder of 2022, and set a goal to raise $5K to cover the costs of the project. We decided to fundraise using GoFundMe.
So, on February 5, 2022, we launched our first GoFundMe campaign to raise money to fund book-hiding through 2022. We were chugging along and doing fairly well (we expected it would take a few months to meet our goal). By week two, we had raised $1,812 – we were feeling great! But friends, it gets better. On the morning of February 18, 2022 (6:23am Tucson time, to be exact), I was checking my morning email and THIS popped into the Tome Gnome’s inbox:
I was immediately wondering “Who is Travis?!?!” and “Why is he giving us all this money?!?!” Honestly, I might have screamed into my empty house, “WHO IS THIS MAGICAL PERSON WHO JUST GAVE US THE EXACT AMOUNT WE NEEDED TO MEET OUR GOAL?!?!” (luckily, my husband leaves for work relatively early, so he wasn’t there to witness my excited flailing about).
After logging into our GoFundMe account, I saw the donor’s last name and made the connection… and also saw that the gift had been marked as “Anonymous” on the donor wall. I was stunned – and honestly, I might have cried a little. But mostly I was wondering how TJ Klune had even heard about our project! I called Mary Ellen and Jody, leaving them what I’m sure were slightly insane-sounding voicemail messages. After the three of us connected, we agreed to have an impromptu meeting later that evening to discuss how we would thank TJ for his incredible act of generosity.
With a plan in place, I started to go about my day (at the time I was doing remote consulting work, and was on back-to-back Zoom calls all day). And then around 11am, I noticed that I had missed a call from a number I didn’t recognize. Upon listening to the message, I learned that it was from Aja Shepherd, the Southwest regional spokesperson and communication manager at GoFundMe. She wanted to congratulate us on meeting our fundraising goal and let us know that TJ wanted to meet us when he would be in Tucson for the Festival of Books in March. She also sent me an email with the same message. The whole thing was bonkers and also kind of hilarious since we (of course) knew he’d be at the Festival of Books (…he was invited by Jody, and would be on a panel moderated by me, haha). Honestly, I thought I might be dreaming the whole thing.
I called Aja back and we had a nice chat. I asked her how this all came to be, and she shared with me that “Random Act of Kindness Day” was on February 17, and as she reviewed GoFundMe campaigns focused on random acts of kindness, ours caught her eye. She shared with me that she’d had dinner with a friend who had recommended that she read The House in the Cerulean Sea, and when she saw us mention it as a favorite book (and the one we launched the project with), she decided to share our campaign with TJ to see if he might want to help (!!!). And he did. He donated $3,188 – the exact amount we needed to meet our goal.
I told Aja that I knew that TJ would be in town in March, since one of us (Jody) had invited him to attend the festival, and one of us (me) would be moderating his panel sessions with V.E. Schwab. She was stunned at the coincidence and luck of the whole situation – it was as if the stars had truly aligned. We were both giddy. That afternoon she put us in touch with TJ, and we had a lovely email exchange about the Tome Gnome’s work. And we planned to meet up when he was in town for the festival.
So… the Tucson Festival of Books arrived, and we met! And we had a lovely chat with V.E. Schwab! And we took photos! And I might have gifted TJ with a knit tome gnome made by my mother. And it was wonderful.
If you can’t tell from our cheesy grins in these photos, we were living our best book-nerd life – and we were so happy to be able to thank TJ in person for his generosity in helping us keep the Tome Gnome going through 2022.
And so we did what we said we would do: we kept the Tome Gnome going! As we approached our 1-year anniversary of book-hiding in September 2022, we knew we wanted to do something special. After some brainstorming, we decided that since we launched the Tome Gnome with The House in the Cerulean Sea, we thought it would be fun to celebrate our anniversary with another wonderful TJ Klune story – Under the Whispering Door. But, we knew we wanted to make it REALLY special, so we reached out to TJ in August and asked if he might be willing to sign 30 bookplates for us. He replied quickly and was happy to do it. A few weeks passed and we had bookplates to share with our hidden books!
While exchanging emails about the bookplates, we also asked him if he was ok with being tagged in our social media posts in the “hint” and “found” photos on the tome hiding day (as you all know… we post A LOT of photos, so we didn’t want him to feel like he was getting spammed). He was into it – YAY!
Flash forward to September 25, 2022. The gnomes experienced the CRAZIEST tome-hiding day ever. Many of you participated… so you know what I’m talking about. Seriously, Tucson – you all came out and were serious about finding these books. So many of you reached out and let us know that you had a blast – it was amazing that we were able to see that nearly all the books were found. Some of you were on dates (hunting for books is such a fun date idea!), some of you brought your kiddos along for the fun, and we discovered that someone even rehid last month’s book! (Which we came across during a coffee break at Raging Sage). It was a blast.
As we neared the end of the day, we received another surprise email from GoFundMe (at 4:37pm), letting us know that TJ had made another anonymous (beyond generous) donation to our GoFundMe. He donated our TOTAL GOAL AMOUNT of $7,500 (which actually put us over the goal, since so many of you had also donated in the prior weeks after we had launched the GoFundMe for 2023!).
WHAT?!?! Can you even believe it??? It’s been a few weeks, and we still can’t believe it.
All around excitement ensued, but books still had to be hidden (there were 3 to go). Once book hiding was done, we reconvened that evening and sent TJ an enthusiastically (borderline crazy?) grateful email that night thanking him for his generosity, AGAIN.
We’ve been in touch since then (as evidenced by the Zoom screenshot included at the start of this post AND included again below, because it’s *maybe* the best photo ever…). And with TJ’s support, we’re so excited that we will be able to keep the Tome Gnome going for at least the next few years – and we have some great ideas to expand our work. There are some exciting new things to come in 2023!!! We couldn’t be more grateful to have TJ as our friend and supporter as we make the future bright and sparkly for our little desert Tome Gnome ❤ The world needs more kindness and generosity, and we’re so excited to be a small part of that.