UIC student Joanie Noble of Franklin Park picks out books at Chicago Books to Women in Prison

UIC student Joanie Noble of Franklin Park picks out books at Chicago Books to Women in Prison, a all-volunteer organization that respond to letters from incarcerated women requesting particular books and and try to find three that best fit the request from the shelves of donated books in Chicago, Sunday, March 10, 2013. (Heather Charles, Chicago Tribune / March 9, 2013)

"We used to keep our books in boxes stacked in a bathtub, so this is not the worst it has been," Bernard noted. The group plans to move to a bigger space, with twice as much shelving, when the Women's Health Center opens new facilities in Uptown in the coming months.

Scott Felgenhauer, a volunteer for a year, was scanning the shelves for an inmate who had requested a journal, an urban novel and a book to interpret dreams.

"That's hard," he said of the dream book. "As soon as we get them in, they're gone." He selected two urban books instead and wrote her a note suggesting she try again for the dream book another time.

Sometimes, Felgenhauer said, he'll make an extra effort to find the book an inmate wants, like when he went to Myopic Books in Wicker Park and got an inmate an Italian dictionary for $3.

"Every time I've needed a break, someone has given it to me," he said.

Felgenhauer started volunteering at the project as part of community service for a drunken driving charge. He was required to volunteer for only six months, but stayed on because he was saddened by the three-month backlog.

Felgenauer, who served time in his youth, empathizes with the inmates, some of whom express great loneliness. A few weeks ago he got a letter from an inmate saying it was her birthday, and she didn't have any family, and all she wanted was a birthday card. He sent her a card, along with a journal, a Bible and a dictionary, and wrote her a note confiding that he had been incarcerated once and advising her, "Make the best of your time."

The thank-you notes that flow in leave no doubt about the inmates' gratitude.

An inmate named Melissa, who puts stars at the base of her exclamation points, said she appreciated the sci-fi books she had been sent and included four drawings she had made of fantasy characters. She said she had been in prison seven years, and "you are my only book senders."

Volunteer Carol Yee, who arrived that Sunday with 30 boxes of books after doing a book drive for the project through Facebook, opened a letter from a Florida inmate who was effusive in her praise of the group and hoping for help once again.

The inmate wished for a Scrabble dictionary, a mystery or suspense novel by Sidney Sheldon, and one book that had been eluding her for years: "I've read every Janet Evanovich book, 1-19 in the series," she wrote, "but cannot find #8 ('Hard Eight') for some reason."

Yee scanned the mystery shelves for Evanovich — the series stars a lingerie-buyer-turned-bounty-hunter — to no avail. Then a visitor spotted, sitting on a table in a pile that had not yet been shelved, the bright green copy of "Hard Eight." Yee gasped with joy.

"How awesome is that," she said, holding the book to her chest. "We just rocked her world."

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz is a Tribune lifestyles reporter.