A bicycle pulls up on the streets of Portland, Oregon, a heavy cargo box in tow. Inside the box is a selection of novels: sci-fi, biographies and everything in between. Patrons walk up to the bike, browsing the titles with curiosity and checking one or two out. There’s no due date, they’re told, and no fines either.
This is the work of Laura Moulton’s project Street Books, a bicycle-powered mobile library for the homeless and those living on the margins. In the summer, Moulton and her team take to the city, making designated stops and bringing literature to a community whose circumstances forbid them from doing so themselves.
Moulton is an artist and a writing professor who firmly believes in the power of reading to help one escape a different reality, a relief that is much needed for those experiencing a difficult time in their lives.
“I think people come to the library for a variety of reasons, and part of it, I think, is being able to lose yourself in a book for the time,” said Moulton.
But without proper identification or a home address to give, the homeless are unable to obtain library cards at public libraries, making borrowing from them not an option. And this is where Street Books steps in.
Street Book was originally created as Moulton’s short-term project in the summer of 2011. At the outset, Moulton was skeptical about whether it would be well-received.
“It’s a bit of an audacious proposal to go out and say, yes, I know you’ve been sleeping on a piece of cardboard for three nights, but here’s a paperback book,” Moulton recalled thinking at the time.
But when asked by a patron in the final days of the initiative where Street Books would be next week, Moulton realized she had created something that actually had demand among the homeless community.
Five years later, Street Books has amassed a loyal group of patrons-turned-regular-readers. Some are former bookworms, excited to rekindle an old love, while some are just realizing a newfound passion.
“The power of a project like Street Books is that when the assumption is that these people outside are not intelligent, not capable of a range of feelings somehow, we show a different narrative,” said Moulton.
A regular patron of Street Book when it began, Ben Hodgson read about three books a week and probably over 50 just that summer.
“You’re sitting around with nothing to do but stare off into space, and it just makes it a lot more livable to have something to do as a leisure-time activity, said Hodgson.
Hodgson was homeless at the time and living on the streets of Portland. After three years outside, he was finally shortlisted for veterans housing. One day, he ran into Moulton, who was delivering books. Remembering his regular patronage and love of literature, Moulton offered him a job sorting through their book collection. Since then, Hodgson has been working as a Street Books’ librarian and inventory specialist. Moulton calls him an “invaluable asset” to the team.
Besides Moulton and Hodgson, Street Books consists a team of other street librarians, all of them avid readers and firm believes that literature should be accessible to all. They don’t just fulfill their librarian duties of handling checkouts and returns, but also encourage patrons to make requests for titles they don’t see. They take the effort to remember the names of their patrons, striking up conversation about thoughts on their most recent read and what books they’ll be digging into next.
“What I realized from Street Books is how similar we all are and how much we connect around reading and ideas,” said Diana Rempe, a Street Books librarian.
The homeless face enough discrimination in society as it is, and while Street Books isn’t offering them an income or a roof over their heads, it hopes its sharing of literature can relieve at least a little bit of that stigma. The project is especially valued in Portland, a city where literary culture runs deep. In fact, Portland’s county library has one of the highest circulation among public libraries in America.
Heather, a patron of Street Books, values books “like gold”.
“Homeless people are smart. We deserve this. We deserve to be able to read,” said Heather.
Image Credits: Street Books