Street Books @ Portland, OR

Street Books is a “bicycle-powered mobile library” that serves the community of people that live "outside” in Portland, OR. Whether the clients they serve are homeless or transient misses the whole point of why an organization like Street Books exists; they exist to provide reading materials for people who live "outside.”

The people that Laura Moulton and Street Books serve may be in between living situations, or not possessed of a current state identification, and so the services of a library that comes to them is extremely convenient. It's not that metropolitan library systems in the U.S. don't serve patrons that live "outside", but one of the stipulations for all libraries is a valid, current address.

The tenets of modern library science and service descend directly from five maxims S.R. Ranganathan, an Indian professor of Mathematics & Philosophy, developed in colonial India. I firmly believe that Street Books targets all five maxims in a way that most libraries could never replicate. One can surely argue that Moulton's efforts and adventures in  outreach are a more pure form of bibliographic outreach because it seeks its users instead of having users or patrons seek it out. Think of Street Books as a heat-seeking missile triangulating the white, hot heat of people in need of a good book, or a trashy book, or a copy of all those old Loius L’Amour or Sue Grafton novels.

This interview was conducted via e-mail, early in March, 2012.

HINCHAS: In “Like You” by Roque Dalton, the Salvadorean poet writes that “poetry, like bread, is for everyone.” How does Street Books make sure that there’s enough poetry for everyone?

Laura Moulton: We spread it around where we can. I think that books, like bread, are for everyone, and I love that Dalton goes on to include "the unanimous blood of those who struggle for life," because that describes a Street Books library patron pretty well -- someone who is scrapping it outside, carrying her/his earthly belongings in a battered backpack, feeling pretty raw sometimes, looking for a good story or poem to transport them. And there's the poetry we check out to patrons, and then the poetry that happens when we meet up (a kind of double poetry, a dip cone of poetry?) with patrons. A month ago, I was finishing up my shift, biking the library through Skidmore Fountain -- it was kind of a lonesome, blustery day, freezing outside and gray -- and all of a sudden I heard a voice yell "Hey Book Lady" and it was Pamela, a regular patron I met during the summer, who often traveled with a giant shopping cart laden with blankets and plastic bags and pictures of her kids. She said, "Have you got my poetry?" And I did, which is the really wonderful part. I had 2 volumes of poetry marked "Pamela," (Ultramarine by Raymond Carver and a collection of Gwendolyn Brooks poems) and I'd been carrying them for a month, looking for her all over Old Town/China Town, and suddenly there she was. So I guess that's how we roll (literally). We ask patrons if they have requests, and then find the poetry or literature, and then find them again, which is sometimes no small feat. It's why every meet-up outside feels like a miracle, and why my heart soared when I heard a voice yell "Hey Book Lady!" We believe everyone should have access to poetry, to good literature, and at Street Books, they don't have to show proof of address or ID to get it.

HINCHAS: Why do people assume that those that live outside are unintelligent when most Americans are about two paychecks away from living outside themselves?

Laura Moulton: Ben could quote Goethe from memory and Isla made me a very sophisticated list of must-read books. Thomas with the tattooed chin and neck said he wanted to read Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier. These are just three of the patrons I served this summer, and each of them serves as a great reminder of the fact that people living outside, or at the margins of society, are every bit as intelligent and thoughtful as people living inside (and sometimes make a lot more sense, actually -- some of the nuttier encounters I've had with this project have been with housed people). I have incredibly well-read patrons, and sometimes it's because they are college graduates, and sometimes it's because they served many years in prison and had a lot of time to read. Over time I've had some otherwise intelligent-seeming people visit the Street Books library and say, "Hmm, it never occurred to me that homeless people would read books." And I think that that's probably due to a lot of factors. One is semantics. You say "homeless" and suddenly people think vagrant/alcoholic/criminal/layabout and there's a whole load of assumptions packed into each of those terms. It's easier to write someone off then, and we don't tend to think of that person as fully human. I know this project has definitely changed me, and my own assumptions about the way humans work.   I think plenty of people do get it, and appreciate what we're doing at Street Books. We've had such a lot of great support from people in Portland, both those living inside (who donate money and books) and those living outside (who donate books when they can, and occasionally money, though less often -- I had a bearded guy who was definitely without shelter press 2 dollars into my hand, "For incidentals," he said,  and he thanked me for operating the library).

HINCHAS: What city in Latin America would you most like to open a branch of Street Books in? Can you think of a specific Latin American country that might be incredibly open to the ethos of Street Books?

Laura Moulton: Oh man, this is such a great question. It's funny because there are vibrant Street Books-like projects already underway in some great countries. I got an email from a guy named Lincoln Paiva in Sao Paulo, Brazil, telling me about their bicycle-powered library project, "Bicicloteca." And there's a guy in LaGloria, Columbia named Luis Soriano who has run "Biblioburro" for years. He rides into the rural towns with a burro or two laden with books. I think he's working on finishing a library for LaGloria now. It's very cool. I would like to go on a quest to find him, a kind of solidarity mission, one street library to another. If I were going to open a little Street Books branch in Latin America, I would love to do it in the tiny village of Patul. It's in the Andes, not far from the Ecuadorian city of Cuenca. We traveled there in 2002 with some European friends and a mule, and wandered into Patul. Before we left, we'd been warned by Cuencanos that the highlands where we were headed were full of moonshiners and horse thieves and we'd surely be killed (if we didn't get lost in the fog and starve to death first, since it was winter). It was true about the moonshiners and horse thieves, but instead of killing us, they fed us trout and invited us to a high-altitude volleyball game, and at night we gathered around a fire and our friend Marco played the accordion and everybody danced. I found a little boarded-up building that had been the village school and one day I sat with a group of children outside. They drew in my journal with my colored pencils and studied the cowboy and horses on the cover of the book I was reading (Chancy, by Louis L'Amour). It was one of the most gorgeous places in the world, but my copy of Chancy was clearly the only book for miles, and I have thought of those children in Patul ever since. I would love to visit there again and bring some books and art supplies.

HINCHAS: What specifically about Portland makes Street Books so at home there?

Laura Moulton: I think it must have to do with our city's love affair with books and with bikes. The combination of the two is exciting. As I said before, we've had great support from people in the form of book and money donations, and great support and participation from the people living outside who check out books from us. I've been invited to speak at Portland State and at many Rotary Clubs in the area (a recent gig found me -- and my brother, whom I dragged with me -- at seven in the morning in rural Washington, pledging allegiance to the flag and singing the Star Spangled Banner before my talk started. It was definitely one of the more surreal mornings I've had in a while). I'm always glad for the opportunity to spread the word about the Street Books project, so I say yes a lot. Portland is a great city for launching all sorts of art projects.

HINCHAS: In , Circle 8: Malebolge is reserved for “The Fraudulent” and the grafters that wanted everything they could get their hands on. In the 8th circle of Dante’s Inferno, “The Fraudulent” and the grafters are sent to simmer in a cauldron of pitch or tar while being harpooned by little demons if they poke their head out of the cauldron? Should stealers of books face a similar fate?

Laura Moulton: I think book thieves should be required to read the books they steal. That's all. And maybe do a report on the book for punishment. I remember this summer a guy called B. Mr. Wree (say it 3 times fast) came to my Street Books shift to let me know that his bag had been stolen, along with the copy of Dharma Bums. We both agreed the thief could probably benefit from it. One of my patrons, Dante, was reading Sun Tzu's Art of War when the book was stolen, along with his backpack and bicycle. Later he told me that in that moment he used what he remembered from the book (the importance of positioning in military strategy, the idea of a quick and appropriate response to changing conditions), to stay calm, circle first one city block, then two, in gradually wider concentric circles, until he found his bicycle in an alley. He never found his pack and the book, but he didn't need it anymore. It was in him.

HINCHAS: What’s the difference between a street librarian and your typical librarian librarian? Do street librarians have like Kung Fu karate grips they exert on

Laura Moulton: There's probably no such thing as a typical librarian anymore, since the Portland librarians (revolutionaries, all) I know blast the old stereotypes to bits, and I'm guessing it's the same everywhere. But I think essential qualifications for a street librarian include the Kung Fu grip you mentioned, plus an ability to see poetry in traditionally gritty and depressing spaces. An affinity for graffiti, the ability to listen carefully without judgement to a person's story. And legs sturdy enough to pedal the bicycle library home to the garage at the end of the shift.

HINCHAS: In “Poema de los Dones”, Borges writes that “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” If this is true, does that mean that your bicycle-powered mobile library is the first thing we might see when we ascend to heaven?

Laura Moulton: Most def. But don't look for the librarian there -- I'll be living down south.

HINCHAS: What does the future hold for Street Books? Are you thinking of combating Illiteracy and bring books to those who live outside in another way? Do you see the mission of Street Books inextricably linked to the role of organizations in Portland that advocate for the homeless?

Laura Moulton: Street Books began as an art project last summer, and it's now an official nonprofit, with a board of directors and everything. I'm still scratching my head about it, because I certainly didn't set out to run a nonprofit. In fact, I'm still figuring out that part. But for now, we're sticking with our central mission, which is to bring good books and conversation to people who live outside. Whether or not we eventually expand and have a McDonald's-like franchise remains to be seen, (think of it: a fleet of bicycle libraries -- I'm dizzy at the possibilities). We have definitely been connected with other organizations in Portland that help people who are living outside, in terms of referring our patrons to different agencies and connecting them with resources we know about. But we've also worked with Street Roots, a local newspaper that is sold by people living outside.

HINCHAS: What’s one of the most requested titles those that live outside request?

Laura Moulton: Lately the Bible has been popular. Jack Kerouac, James Patterson, Stephen King. I've checked out Jeanette Wall's memoir, Glass Castle, and A River Runs Through It by Norman McClean in the last few weeks. Right now I've got Vonnegut, Asimov and LeGuin in the library selection. And many more on our shelves in storage.

HINCHAS: Do you think that public opinion of those that live outside and the homeless has changed since the housing devaluation and Recession of 2009 has devastated our country?

Laura Moulton: I can only think yes, in the case of people who suddenly get a chance to experience what it's like to lose everything, and be at the mercy of a bumbling bureaucratic tangle of safety nets. But I imagine that those who are most well off (who might inhabit the 1% that Occupy has been talking about) are not going to change the way they feel about people who are at the bottom. I suppose that makes it doubly important to do what we're doing. To show up every shift and lend books in good faith, have conversations with people who are hungry for a community and for new opportunities. That's what we can do for now.