“There are stories inside the stories, and I want to know them all.” In conversation with Laura Moulton
Laura Moulton is the founder of Street Books, a nonprofit mobile library that serves people who live outside in Portland, Oregon. Active since June of 2011, Street Books is “committed to providing good literature, and conversations about literature, for those who are often pushed to the margins.”
This week, LNL contributor Corinne Gould talks with Moulton about the origin and continued work of Street Books and about the spaces where activism and art interact.
CORINNE GOULD: Without the registration rules and potential fines of a regular library circulation, Street Books provides literature to populations that would often be excluded from access. Can you tell us about the inspiration? What did it take to get it up and running, and what has to happen to offer continued support for these communities?
LAURA MOULTON: I lived in Utah in the early 90s while I went to college, and I worked at a place called the Food and Shelter Coalition. The coalition provided meals and emergency shelter, and it put me in contact with a lot of people who were living at the margins, some who had just hopped off a train and were veterans at sleeping outside, and others who were new to the streets and really struggling. At the time I was attending a sort of shiny-happy religious university up on the hill, and I began to look forward to work at the shelter each day, where I could talk to people who were not quite so shellacked and perfect. To me, the clients had the very best stories, and were experts on subjects that society didn’t necessarily give them credit for. I don’t want to romanticize living outside, but I really loved the characters I met at the shelter, and that was probably an early appreciation for stories from people on the road.
Some years later, I lived in inner SE Portland, near St. Francis Parish. I met some of the guys who were sleeping outside in the area, and wound up doing a radio feature about them for KBOO radio. Through that experience I met a man who goes by Quiet Joe, and in conversation, we discovered a mutual affinity for the author A.B. Guthrie, who wrote books like The Big Sky and The Way West. I eventually gave him a small bag of paperback books, and I think that might be one of the early seeds for Street Books.
As far as the nuts and bolts go, I bought a used Haley trike from Craigslist, basically just a plywood box set atop a tricycle, and my architect-brother James Moulton added the fancy wood trim and stencils, and built a pull-out drawer so that I could create a display with the books. I wanted something that looked like a battered depression era trunk, something that would make people curious enough about it to approach the bike to see what it was. James and I did some test drives with a bag of chicken feed in front of my house, to make sure it handled the weight alright, and it’s been carrying about 50 books per shift ever since.
CG: I love the way you described an exchange of stories as escaping from the “shellacked and perfect.” It is very clear that you are passionate about connecting with marginalized populations. Street Books was able to raise over $5,300 (exceeding your goal of $4,000) from a Kickstarter campaign in 2011 and has been awarded a Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) grant and others. What has your experience been with crowd funding and grant applications? How is Street Books unique among other homeless outreach and literacy nonprofits?
LM: I learned a lot from the Kickstarter campaign. I love the postal system, and I love sending people packages, but I think we sort of screwed ourselves with the rewards we offered to donors – I spent a lot of time mailing buttons, stickers and bookmarks to places like England and Australia, sometimes at a cost that exceeded the original donation. That said, it’s also why I love crowd-funding opportunities so much: someone in England or Australia can support your project, though you will likely never meet. We have had some success with grants, for which I’m grateful. In 2012 we got an Innovation in Reading award from the National Book Foundation, which included $2,500 and a trip to NYC to attend the national book awards, where I gave a presentation at the Ford Foundation. That was an incredibly important award, one that really buoyed me at a time when I was a bit worn at the seams, after a very drippy dispiriting spring (this was the first year, when I attempted to run Street Books year-round. We now operate from June to October). My former patron, now board member and Inventory Specialist, Ben Hodgson helped me give a 3-minute pitch to the Awesome Foundation, at an event at Portland’s Dig a Pony. We were one of five organizations vying for a $1,000, and we won! Ben later said it’s the fastest grand he ever made. It was a real boon to Street Books, and felt easier than some of the grants we’ve written to foundations. We’ve got a few pending grants we’re waiting on right now, and I’m optimistic that we’ll stay steady as we grow.
I think Street Books is unique for several reasons. For one, the idea was initially conceived of as an art project (RACC funded it under the social practice designation), and that impulse or orientation continues to inform the way I work with the project. We’re also different in that we don’t have a brick and mortar anywhere that we have to fundraise for. We rent a parking spot in a garage in Chinatown (from Ryan Hashagan of Portland Pedicabs and Icicle Tricycles) for the bike, and we store our library books in a basement space in the Ecotrust Building, (which they have donated going on 4 years now!). So in some ways, we are light on our feet, and that has taken the pressure off of bigger fundraising, and allowed us to be a bit more independent. I also think that we are different from other social service agencies that are geared toward serving people who live outside because we offer books and conversation about books – we are not counselors, parole officers, bike rangers, etc., and this frees us up to have really great interactions with people, many of whom are clearly relieved to have a chance to talk about their interests and favorite authors, and (at least temporarily) to sidestep their most pressing preoccupations, like where to sleep that night and where to secure a meal.
CG: On the Street Books website, you admit that it was initially unclear whether patrons would want to or be able to return the books they borrowed. What has been your rate of success with returns? How do you think the library cards you issue affect the loyalty or consistency of Street Book borrowers?
LM: I really like our homemade library system: we give each patron a business-sized card with our hours of operation, and write their name on a line that says “Patron.” When people are invited to participate, and to be accountable, I have found they will do their best to step up, and the very personal, one-on-one interaction helps a lot. What makes it “binding” is the handshake, the exchange of names, and the invitation to return the next week to the same space, to return the book and check out a new one.
We have kept loose documentation of check-outs and returns over the past 4 years, because we use an old school card-in-pocket in each book and we can count the cards we still have to see what didn’t come back. There are some patrons we only ever see once because they’re passing through Portland. Among our regular patrons, we have a high rate of returns, and then we have a number of near-heroic stories of patrons who have sought us out to explain that they won’t be able to return their books because of theft or rain damage. One of my favorite memories is of a patron named Dante who hung out during our first summer, and became a kind of self-appointed security detail for us. Dante is in the 2011 documentary from by Travis Shields. He’d visit the shift and philosophize and talk books (he was very well read), and he even ran a shift for me near the end of that first summer when my kid had a soccer game I wanted to go to. Dante was in the middle of reading The Book of Five Rings by Samurai warrior Miyamoto Musashi, when someone stole his backpack and bicycle. It’s a manual on martial arts, but it is also full of principles that can be applied to real life. And Dante said he used what he’d learn to be very calm, and to move in a circle, first one block, then two, then three, fanning out until he discovered his bicycle in an alley. His backpack was gone, along with a U-lock and the copy of the Samurai book, but he got his bike back.
CG: In the last year especially, Street Books has gotten a lot of positive press and interest from national media, including a mention from Aesop skin care and a wonderful article in the New York Times. How does it feel to have a grassroots, local organization garner so much attention and praise? Did you expect to get noticed by such a wide audience?
LM: We have been so grateful for consistent and supportive press we’ve received. The Oregonian and the Portland Mercury were kind to us early on, and helped us to get the word out. I did not anticipate that we’d get national coverage, and the New York Times piece was very fun for that reason. In some ways, I think the appeal of Street Books lies in its simplicity, and in the fact that so many people know what it’s like to lose themselves in a book, to have their lives shaped by the literature they love. The service we provide would not necessarily show up on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (though I would put books just after food and shelter), but I think it’s still a vital part of what makes a life good.
CG: Lots of people have been posting about Street Books or commenting on your site about their own interest in starting a similar program. What has made Portland such a uniquely affirmative environment for a service like this? What would you specifically recommend to other activists and booklovers who want to enact change in their communities?
LM: I think it goes without saying that Portland is an ideal spot for a project like this. We are a city known for its literary leanings – throw a rock on any given night in Portland and you’ll hit a public reading or local author – and the fact that so people are also very bike-oriented makes it a perfect combination. There’s been a lot of interest from people over the years in starting a street library service in their own cities, from Rwanda to Italy to North Carolina, and I always send an encouraging email. I also offer some basic how-to advice in the form of a battered homemade zine people can read on the website. [Linked below.]
The main advice I offer is that it’s really important to be willing to put in the time. You have to show up at the same time and place each shift so that patrons can find you and return their books. It’s a service they grow to depend on, and it’s important to make sure you’re up for the commitment. It helps (enormously) to have a team of people, who can take shifts and spread out the work. I now have a working board and two street librarians beside myself.
CG: That is great advice! I know this isn’t the first unique literary venture you have been a part of. In September, Late Night Library had the chance to interview your partner, Ben Parzybok. That is how we heard about your joint project, Gumball Poetry. Gumball Poetry distributed four issues a year in capsule machines in eighteen locations across the U.S. The goal was to bring poetry to the masses by making something that can seem stodgy more approachable, or as Ben put it, “cheap and dirty and sexy and sweet.” What made you fall in love with literature enough to dedicate your life to sharing an appreciation of books and art with others?
LM: It’s funny, sometimes Ben and I laugh (ruefully?) at our projects and the way they tend to overtake our household. For years we tripped over brown bags full of Gumball Poetry capsules in our dining room, and these days it’s brown bags full of paperback books. Sometimes there will be four bags of books on our front porch when we step out to check the mail! But I can’t imagine it otherwise. We have collaborated since the beginning on our artistic projects together. He is the main reader for most things I write, and I value his feedback a lot. He is also the reason I have any web presence at all, since he is very handy with the website building and design. Ben hatched the idea of Gumball Poetry while we were living in an industrial city in Taiwan, and when we moved to Portland in 1998, it felt like a perfect city to host that kind of literary project. We had poetry machines in Powells, Rimsky Korsakoffee House, Café Lena, and Reading Frenzy –seriously cool venues, and we were grateful to work with such stellar members of the community. I think the same idea behind Gumball Poetry of creating a novel place to discover a poem could apply to Street Books, in that it’s interesting to stumble upon a library in the middle of Skidmore Fountain. I like the idea of creating intersections in the public sphere that cause people to take pause and examine something closely, and possibly have an interaction they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Ben and I have two kids (eight and eleven), which is kind of the ultimate creative collaboration, and we have included them in our projects over the years. I was big-pregnant with my daughter Sylvie when we worked on Project Hamad. My son Coen has helped me on a Street Books shift, so they are tied in to what we do. One of the great things about working on creative projects together, as a couple and as a family, is that it keeps things interesting. It doesn’t let us get soft.
CG: What a family affair! I am really inspired by the amount of lived creativity you must be passing on to Sylvie and Coen. Can you tell us more about Project Hamad?
LM: Project Hamad is something that came about after Ben, myself, and our friend David Naimon (who is a writer and does killer interviews with authors on his podcast) became very frustrated about how little we knew about what was going on with prisoners at Guantanamo Bay prison and the apparent evaporation of habeas corpus. The standard line was the camp was for the “worst of the worst,” but we had no confidence that was actually true. We did some poking around and discovered that local Portland lawyers (Steven Wax and William Teesdale) were defending several of the detainees, including a Sudanese man named Adel Hamad. We met with them, and after they vetted us to make sure we weren’t complete wingnuts, they sent us home with a giant stack of documents about his case. From this, we created Project Hamad, which was basically a member-based group that used an “Andre Has a Posse”-style viral campaign to bring attention to his story. Ben built the website and David and I worked on generating content together. We were convinced that if people had names and biographies to go with the detainees, public sentiment would turn against this indefinite, anonymous detention. Sadly this is still ongoing with a number of prisoners still detained. There may be really bad guys held there – I hope so, after all this time, for the sake of all the prisoners and families who have been impacted, and the money spent to hold people. But here’s what we discovered about Adel Hamad: he was an air conditioner mechanic who was working in Pakistan to support his family back home. He was good at ping-pong and had a wicked sense of humor. He had worked as a hospital administrator, distributing blankets and supplies to refugees. He was not an enemy combatant.
We had hundreds of people join Project Hamad, including writers like Yusef Komunyakaa. It was great to get that support. Adel Hamad was eventually released, after about 7 years of detention. Never charged with a crime, and not so much as a fruit basket acknowledgement from the United States. I think it comes back to the idea that when we know someone’s story, and look them in the face, it’s more difficult to turn away from them, or to disregard their situation. It’s why I document my library patrons on the street – I invite them to be photographed with their book of choice, because I believe that also tells an important story, whether it’s of a young, fresh face holding up a copy of Kerouac, or a more grizzled person reading Toni Morrison. There are stories inside the stories, and I want to know them all.
CG: Project Hamad is clear proof of your political activism and engagement. I am interested to know how, as an artist and an activist, you find that your writing informs your philanthropy and your philanthropy informs your writing? Is there any reason to compartmentalize the two at all?
LM: This is a good question. I don’t feel a need to compartmentalize writing and activism, though I have separate writing projects outside the Street Books project. I admire Grace Paley, a lifelong activist who managed to raise a family, write stories, and agitate for women’s rights and against the war in Vietnam. My main challenge in balancing the two has been trying to ease up on myself – I tend to have a pretty wicked internal critic that really goes to town if I let too much time pass without writing and publishing my own work, regardless of whatever art project I may be immersed in.
CG: Are you currently writing anything now?
LM: Most recently I’ve been at work on a book project with Ben Hodgson, who was sleeping outside in Chinatown when I first met him, and is now a part of the Street Books team. He has been in an apartment for more than a year now, and we have co-taught workshops for Lewis and Clark College and given presentations to schools. Ben leads a wonderful tour through Chinatown, describing where he ate and slept during that time. He talks about it in a great Street Roots piece. In January of 2014, Ben cooked me a fish dinner at his campsite where he lived at the time, and a year later, he cooked me a fish dinner in the same frying pan, but in an apartment this time. Those are some of the stories we’d like to include in the book we write.
For more information, check out the links below:
Street Books website: http://www.streetbooks.org/
Street Books documentary (2011) by Travis Shields.
Downloadable PDF “How=to” zine on starting a street library.
Ben Hodgson’s Street Roots piece about living in Chinatown.
New York Times article on Street Books.
Late Night Interview with novelist Ben Parzybok.
Laura Moulton is the founder of Street Books, a bicycle-powered mobile library that serves people who live outside in Portland, Oregon (streetbooks.org). She has taught writing in public schools, prisons, and teen shelters, and is an adjunct professor at Marylhurst University and Lewis & Clark College. Her social art practice projects have involved postal workers, immigrants, prisoners and students. She earned an MFA from Eastern Washington University. For more information, visit lauramoulton.org.
Corinne Gould is a student in the Book Publishing M.A. program at Portland State University. An enthusiastic reader and reluctant writer, Corinne is a publicity intern with Hawthorne Books and volunteers in the Bonny Slope Elementary’s Library.