Back in 2011, Portland, Oregon’s Laura Moulton won a grant to fund a book bicycle that would serve as a mobile lending library to the city’s homeless population. From it, Street Books, a tricycle carting a chest full of books to lend, was born.
Unfortunately, the grant money only lasted for three months, but Moulton knew she couldn’t quit.
“At the end of that first summer I arrived late for one of the last shifts and Keith, a regular patron, was waiting for me with his book,” she tells Rebecca Koffman of The Oregonian. “I realized this wasn’t a service that could be suspended because an art project had come to an end.”
So Moulton founded a nonprofit to keep Street Books pedaling — purchasing books and funding three librarians who cover three-hour shifts, three days a week at locations accessible to many homeless people.
Street Books doesn’t fuss if a book isn’t returned (though most are). “We decided to operate the library on the assumption that people living outside have more pressing concerns than returning a library book, and that every time a return came in, it would be cause for celebration,” Moulton writes on the nonprofit’s website.
Moulton says that the book bike attracts all kinds of people, and that it’s often the catalyst for someone to start a conversation with a homeless person instead of avoiding eye contact. When people approach to find out about what Street Books is, “one of our patrons will be there,” she says, “ready to set down his or her backpack and talk about books. It’s an opportunity for people to step out of their prescribed roles.”
Diana Rempe, one of the librarians, tells Koffman, “There are so many really obvious assumed differences, assumptions that because you don’t have a roof over your head and some basic needs are not met, doesn’t mean that you aren’t interested in ideas, the life of the mind, the joy of reading. That’s right up there with nourishment of other sorts.”
One of Street Books’ regular customers is Ben Hodgson, a formerly homeless veteran who now lives in Section 8 housing. While he was on the streets, the literature Street Books provided brought him comfort, and now he works on Fridays as the inventory specialist, helping the librarians sort books. “Street Books didn’t get me the heck off the streets; no-one can do that for you,” Hodgson says. “But it was, what do they call them? Street Books was one of those tender mercies.”