Street Books brings a good read to people on the streets

This summer, Portland writer and educator Laura Moulton took it upon herself to bring a mobile library to the streets. Her project captured the attention of not only people experiencing homelessness, but the community at large, people in the media, and a devoted cadre of volunteers. Here, Moulton writes about the journey that became Street Books.

by Laura Moulton, Contributing Writer

The first week in June, I rolled up to the South Park Blocks at Salmon Street and parked my bicycle-powered mobile library. It was drizzling — June appears to be Portland’s new November — as I set the brakes, pulled out the drawer and propped it up. I wiped down the books with a cloth, and took stock of my surroundings. There were guys with backpacks at the north end of the square, sitting together smoking and talking quietly. A group of tattooed kids with dogs on ratty leashes sprawled on the grass not far from me, under what small shelter the canopy of branches above provided. People walked through the square with children, others jogged through with headphones on.

I confess I was a little nervous. I’d written a grant to operate a mobile library for people living outside, and Portland’s Regional Arts and Culture Council (racc.org) had agreed to fund it. I found the bicycle, a used Haley Trike (haleytrikes.com) on Craigslist, and my brother James built a beautiful box on it to carry my library books around. I’d chosen the books carefully, from my own shelves and from Second Glance Books on Northeast Sandy Boulevard, where the proprietor Rachelle gave me a big discount when she heard about what I was doing. Now I was ready, but full of trepidation: what if nobody out here wanted a book? Or what if they all checked out books, but, as one naysayer had predicted, no one returned them?

There was also a small voice in me that said, Really? A book? Somebody’s been sleeping on a piece of cardboard on the concrete for months, and what you’ve got to offer them is a paperback? It had occurred to me, for instance, that a man who had been on the road for months or years might not enjoy reading Cormac McCarthy’s desolate, lonesome story of an interminable journey on foot, called “The Road,” even if it had won a Pulitzer.

My first patron wasn’t actually a patron at all, but a bicycle cop named A.B. He studied my contraption, scanned the titles in the library, and then asked for my permit. I said I thought if I wasn’t selling anything, I didn’t need to have a permit. He chewed on this information for a few minutes and then seemed to decide I was OK. He lingered and talked about his favorite kind of books, how he had a busy brain and normally only made it partway through a given book before getting distracted. He settled in and appeared quite comfortable, and much as I appreciated the company, I began to wonder if his uniform and presence at the library wasn’t going to hurt my business. After a time, he wished me luck and pushed off. But not before he agreed to pose for a picture, which I later posted on the Street Books website.

With A.B. gone, I screwed up my courage and approached the group of young people sprawled on the grass. “Hey guys, I’m operating a library for people who live outside — you should come have a look at the books, if you like.” I handed out a Street Books card to each person. Thomas was one of the first from the group to amble over and lean over the row of books to inspect my collection. Up close I saw that he had that kind of blue-green eyes that are spooky beautiful, and his chin and neck were tattooed with designs.

“I’m also willing to take requests, if you have any,” I said.

He looked at me with those eyes. “I’ve been meaning to read “Cold Mountain,” by Charles Frazier.”

Meeting Thomas that first day, and taking his book request, was the best thing that could have happened to me. Whatever I might have supposed about a young man wearing mostly black, with tattoos on his face and neck, it wasn’t that he’d been meaning to read a Civil War novel that has been called an homage to the Odyssey.  I decided that very day that if nothing else, I needed to keep my mind open and make no assumptions about what a patron might want to read, or about what they were like.

It only took a few weeks of running the street library to realize that my initial fears were unfounded. The answer to my early questions were: yes, people would come, and they would come back again and again, returning library books when they were finished reading them, and lingering to talk about whether they liked or disliked them, and what they wanted next. I came to enjoy those conversations about books, and I think the feeling was mutual.

Charlie spotted me that first week, biking back to the Mercy Corps Action Center, where I stored the Street Books bicycle for the summer.

“Hello, Sweetheart,” he said. “Let’s do this. Whatcha got?”

He chose a copy of “The Monkeywrench Gang,” by Edward Abbey, and I took a short video of him talking about the significance of the novel in Abbey’s writing career, and how it informed environmental activist groups that came after. Charlie helped spread the word about Street Books, and some weeks he brought along a friend to check out books. Nolan liked cowboy stories, and Mark requested stories about champions, about characters who transcended the challenges in their lives to become winners. Like the story of a racehorse, for example.

“‘Seabiscuit’ is a book about a horse judged by the way it looked,” Mark said, “but there was a man who saw some capability in that horse, and a light. People didn’t recognize the heart that the horse had.”

Mark’s words were captured in a video by Beth Nakamura from The Oregonian, which was posted along with a great article by Rebecca Koffman. What followed was a lot of great press all summer. Meanwhile, local Portlanders donated paperback books and money toward sponsoring a patron with a requested book, sometimes coming in person to the Street Books library. A group of students from Beaumont Middle School took their old books to Powell’s, sold them and got a gift certificate of $100 for Street Books. Broadway Books, on NE Broadway and 17th, wrote and said they loved Street Books and wanted to help. “We’ll start you with a $50 gift card,” they said. “Come get whatever you need.”

Assistant Street Librarians Sue Zalokar and Celia Luce offered tactical and moral support, and gave me the occasional day off. Beth Chapman, a former librarian herself, became a regular at the Saturday shift, and often went in search of titles requested by our patrons. Street Books also received visits from librarians at the Multnomah County Library, including one from Geoff Brunk, with Outreach Services, who gave us two boxes of carefully chosen books. It fast became clear that the city of Portland was more than ready to support a library that served its citizens who lived outside.

Good-natured debates and conversations regularly spring up about literature. One day Max, who was sixteen and staying at the Harbor Light Shelter, checked out “A Million Little Pieces,” by James Frey. Debra, who was also young, was combing through the library, searching for a book. She saw Max’s choice and said “Just so you know, that guy made up a bunch of stuff in his memoir. It’s not actually all true.”

Max shrugged. “If it’s a good story, it doesn’t matter so much.”

“It does matter,” Debra said. “I was totally into it, and only halfway through when I heard he’d made it all up, and it sucked to find that out!”

I listened as two teenagers suddenly engaged in a debate about an author’s responsibility when it comes to penning a memoir, the subjectivity of “truth”, and the necessity of some invention whenever one is constructing stories from the past. The writing teacher part of me wanted to pump my fist in the air and say, “Yessss!”

Another chance encounter I witnessed happened on a recent Saturday shift in the Park Blocks. A.B. was there, the security guard who once asked to see my permit, and was now a great supporter and defender of the Street Books cause. Also there was Jeffrey, a formerly homeless meth addict, now clean and a student in my writing class at Marylhurst University. Jeffrey gestured to A.B., who was looking through the library books, and said, “That guy used to wake me up in the park next to the elephant, back when I was still using. He was always pretty nice about it.”

“Hey A.B.,” I waved him over, and repeated what Jeffrey had just said. I told him that Jeffrey was a college student now, and free of drugs. A kind of success story.

“I thought you looked familiar,” A.B. said. “Congratulations.” He reached out and shook Jeffrey’s hand.

Street Books patrons are issued a simple, complimentary library card, no photo ID or proof of address necessary, and after they choose a book, they sign their name on the card, which they leave behind. We leave the date blank, agreeing to find each other the following week, or the week after that. I have found over time that not only are patrons conscientious about returning their books, but they come back to talk to me if, for some reason, they can’t return them.

One Saturday, a patron named Dustin approached at the Park Blocks shift and said, “Laura, I have terrible news.”

I steeled myself for the possibility that a patron had been hurt or killed.

He took a deep breath. “I totally ruined the copy of “Hellboy,” the graphic novel you checked out to me.”

I wanted to hug him. I told him it was no problem, and that I was happy he’d come back to let me know.

“It got wet in the rain, and the pages are stuck together,” he said mournfully. “I just kept thinking about you looking at the “Hellboy” card and wondering ‘Where’s Dustin? Where’s the “Hellboy” book?’”

In a city like Portland, each week brings strange and miraculous visions: a kitten perched on an accordion as a young man plays a polka, his case open in front of him in case people feel like throwing in a dollar. A guy named Phil, and his shopping cart that is more a sculpture, sedimentary layers of precious belongings, expertly arranged to use space in the most efficient way possible. On one side, two lilies poking up from a bottle of water. On the other side, a bag of soil out of which a healthy tomato plant grows. Road warrior-types with backpacks and dogs on leashes, a bicyclist circling the square, dressed as a jester, hollering “Give the jester a cheeseburger!” In the midst of all the color and vibrancy, our patrons come and go. Each one has a story: Ben looks professorial in his red eyeglasses. He sleeps outside on the ground each night, but can recite Goethe’s “Sorrows of a Young Werther” from memory. Most weeks he checks out murder mysteries or thrillers, saying that he’d go more for highbrow, but he needs something exciting to transport him from his current reality. Pamela has checked out and returned books for most of the summer. She recently had her shopping cart full of possessions taken away by street-cleaners and lost everything — from photos of her children to a book about wolves, given to her by a stranger who read about her on the Street Books Web site.

This summer they have had a chance to share their stories at the Street Books library, meeting others like them, who sleep outside, and plenty of other people of means: students, city workers, bicyclists and artists. It’s a great stew of all different types of people. People who live under roofs, people who live under bridges, people who love books, people who write them, and dogs on leashes. So many stories to be told. And plenty of others to check out from the Street Books library.

You can support Street Books this month for the up and coming season by giving to their project at Kick Starter.

Photos by Becky Mullins

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3 responses to “Street Books brings a good read to people on the streets

  1. From what I see Streetbooks just carries fictions. I am surprised to see these adult novels when homeless only has a reading level average of 5-year-olds. Isn’t it like throwing pearls before swines? For crying out loud why not stock materials that are actually educational? How many days does Streetbooks let its “patrons” check out a book for? Ideally by the due date they won’t be homeless anymore, but of course in Portland that’s not happening. It’s another one of dangerous compassions that multiply the number of chronic homeless in our otherwise fine city. Don’t you realize the areas around where streetbooks goes are literally infested with homeless? Don’t add to the nuisance, people.

  2. careful, derick. to overgeneralize with lots of grammatical errors about the education level of people who live on the street is to call attention to one’s own shortcomings.

  3. Derick! ,,
    even reading “fictions” can help with keeping sanity
    “reading level of 5-year-old” a stupid generalization made funny ?
    “pearls before swines?” no its “pearls before swine”
    “stock materials that are educational? ” any book can be educational!
    “by the due date they won’t be homeless”
    ok please tell us how this relates at all?!
    “dangerous compassions” hey a cool movie title?
    this “multiplys the number of chronic homeless”
    so you are saying helping people read makes them homeless
    ,, so are school kids doomed to homelessness
    “streetbooks goes are infested with homeless”
    & thats who they are looking to help , hence the proximity

    DOLT!

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