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Serving the Community One Book At a Time

By Samantha Shimogawa

Nearly a year ago, Laura Moulton started up a project called Street Books, a unique enterprise created for the purpose of serving those who live outside. What makes things interesting is that it’s a bicycle-powered mobile library. Moulton cycles around town with 40-50 books packed into her book cart cargo trunk tricycle, lending them to those interested or in need of a little literary relaxation. Furthermore, everyone can get a book, even those without proof of address or identification, as is required at any state public library.

Laura Moulton (top left) poses with her portable library that serves as a means for transporting books to people who otherwise would have difficulty acquiring them. Photo courtesy of Laura Moulton Photo courtesy of Laura Moulton

Laura Moulton (top left) poses with her portable library that serves as a means for transporting books to people who otherwise would have difficulty acquiring them.

“We give everyone a Street Books library card and write their name on it. Then we operate on trust, knowing that a patron will do her or his best to return the book when they finish it, or will pass it on to somebody who can enjoy it,” Moulton explains. After all, the purpose of the project is not to get as many books returned as possible, but to give good books and spark conversations with those living outside who don’t usually have that option.

“I already knew that people sleeping outside every night might have more pressing concerns than getting a book back to me,” she says, “so I decided to look at every return as a cause for celebration, and we’ve done a lot of celebrating since then.” As it turns out, those who can’t bring them back make a point to seek her out and explain why, oftentimes having to do with rain damage or it being stolen.

Now known as Portland’s “Street Librarian,” Moulton’s passion for books, poetry and writing isn’t new. As an author, artist, and teacher, she has worked with various groups — from immigrants to college students, and postal workers to women prisoners. She also leads writing and art residencies for Writers in the Schools, a program that “engages children in the pleasures and power of reading and writing,” and is an adjunct professor at Marylhurst University. When she initiated this social experiment / art project she had some concerns.

“I think I had some fears about whether this was going to be a project people would appreciate, especially if they were struggling to survive, day to day,” Moulton remarks. “But I found that once I explained what I was doing, people were very engaged and appreciative. They made book requests and then showed up the next week to pick them up.”

 Photo courtesy of Laura Moulton Photo courtesy of Laura Moulton

Her customers are not the only ones who appreciate Street Books, as the whole of Portland has also praised it endlessly, with coverage by both The Oregonian and The Portland Mercury and a great documentary on the project titled “Street Books / a short film by Travis Shields,” can be viewed on YouTube.

“I am so grateful to the city of Portland, to its citizenry, its documentary filmmakers, its scrappy reporters who walked past my street library on their way to lunch, the bike commuters who brought me paperbacks in their panniers, the kid with the tattooed face who requested Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier...” Moulton reminisces. “All of them were supportive of the project and wanted to help in some way.”

In addition to the already impressive local advocacy, Street Books has also gained national acclaim beyond anything Moulton expected, with articles by The Christian Science Monitor and The Library Journal. But how did such an amazing and well-loved project come to life? According to Moulton, the idea of Street Books took form through her personal life experiences, beginning with a job she had at the Food & Shelter Coalition in Provo, Utah, during college. “I met a lot of amazing characters there, and I won’t ever forget them,” she remarks.

 Photo courtesy of Laura Moulton Photo courtesy of Laura Moulton

After moving to Portland in 1998, she met a number of homeless people and later did a radio feature on a group of them for KBOO, one of Portland’s community radio stations. During that time, she also met a man called “Quiet Joe,” who had been living outdoors by choice for about fourteen years. She talked to him about books and authors, discovering that they both really liked The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie. All those experiences were tucked away and they might have helped bring the project to life. In the summer of 2011 she attained a grant from Portland’s Regional Arts & Culture Council, which helped make Street Books a reality.

Once up and running, the only real problem was the “drippy weather,” which made standing outside with paperbacks somewhat difficult. Fortunately, the weather soon dried up and Street Books has been running smoothly ever since.

Thanks to the internet, anyone can see for themselves how well the endeavor has been doing, without having to physically visit the book-filled tricycle — Moulton also maintains a blog that acts as a quasi-documentary of Street Books, thereby preserving its history. Additionally, it holds a more significant value for her and whenever a customer finds a book they like, Moulton takes a picture of them holding the chosen paperback and then uploads it onto the blog.

“I want to help tell the story of a particular time and place, and people interacting together,” she explains. “I also think that people who are housed might make certain assumptions about people who are living outside, and being able to see them pose with good books they’ve chosen might remind them that these are people who read, who have aspirations and quirks and goals just like everybody else.”

In addition,the site features photos of people posing with books they have decided to donate, and of those affiliated with the project, such as Right 2 Dream Too members. Customers and sponsors, however, are not the only ones that get a turn in the spotlight. The blog also chronicles some of the interesting encounters Street Books has had around Portland, such as the discovery of a large blue tarp with the sign, “Street Library” taped on it, built by Occupy Portland protesters; Moulton labels the entry, “Street Library Meets Street Library.”

 Photo courtesy of Laura Moulton Photo courtesy of Laura Moulton

Today, the blog has upwards of 300 entries, in fact, Moulton says that she and her colleague Sue Zalokar filed for 501c3 status in December 2011, which would make Street Books an official nonprofit organization. Moulton explains that the project was only meant to last from June to August, but she realized at the end of the summer that there was no way she could stop.

“I love talking to people and hearing about their stories. I love the surprised expression on a patron’s face when they discover I have a particular book just for them,” she says. How could she end it after only a few measly months when it has just started to evolve?

“It felt like momentum and support had been building, and so I decided to keep it going,” she explains.

The two street librarians worked together and raised enough money to finance the fall and winter of 2011. “It was very exciting to see that kind of support from people, from all over the world,” she adds. And now, to most everyone’s delight, Street Books has almost completely transformed from a temporary summer project into a permanent Portland fixture.

 Photo courtesy of Laura Moulton Photo courtesy of Laura Moulton

Beyond this, Moulton says she doesn’t have any aspirations of further expansion and she isn’t dreaming of starting a fleet of bicycle libraries however, she will be adding a book group to the current project.

“There were enough people who would check out their books weekly and then linger, hungry for conversation, that I realized many of them would commit to sticking around to meet once a week for a book group,” she explains. She intends to get local businesses to donate lunches and has already lined up the first author, Pete Rock, a local professor, for the first book club.

“We’re going to use his novel called My Abandonment, which is based on the true story of the father-daughter duo who were found living in Forest Park in Portland,” she says. “I think it will make for some interesting discussions.” In addition, Rock has agreed to join participants on the last day for a question and answer session.

Somehow, in the past several months, Street Books has become a source of inspiration, hope, and comfort for those who previously had none — and thanks to Moulton, it will continue to be for years to come.

For more information on the project,its “Street Librarians,” and find out how you can assist or read the Street Books blog, visit streetbooks.org. You can also find them on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 to 11:30 a.m. on the corner of 4th and Burnside and from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. near the Skidmore Fountain/Waterfront area.

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