Laura Moulton stood in front of the art museum next to a cargo bike stuffed with books last month at the Portland Book Festival. Among the titles displayed were Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries, each bearing a sticker which read “STREET BOOKS, a mobile bicycle-powered library for people living outside.”
“We serve a number of places around the city,” Moulton said, who is an adjunct professor at Marylhurst University and Lewis & Clark College. “We focus on people living outdoors that might not access the mainstream public library. Systemic barriers usually are what keep them out and it might be not having an ID to show proof of ID or proof of address because they don’t have a fixed address.”
Moulton and eight other street librarians pedal one of two cargo-bike libraries to locations such as Northwest Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, where houseless and otherwise disadvantaged people gather. Patrons can check out books for one week, although Moulton stressed there are no overdue fines or fees for lost books.
“Those who can’t return it for some reason often come to find us to tell us why: rain damage, theft of a backpack, plenty of stuff that would be typical of being outdoors,” said Moulton.
Her fellow street librarian Diana Rempe added: “Laura and I are uncommonly strong.” When asked if the book bike was hard to pedal, Moulton said, “You get used to it after a while.”
Moulton said I should meet a Street Books librarian named Ben Hodgson, who had once been houseless himself. She’d known him since Street Books’ first summer, when each week he’d check out three books to read in his accustomed spot on a park bench at the waterfront. He once scolded her good-naturedly for not having P.G. Wodehouse novels.
When I later met Hodgson at his home in North Portland, he sat me at his computer to watch a short documentary film appropriately titled Street Books. “You might think that just sitting here with nothing to do all day long, watch the Burnside Bridge go up and down six, seven times a day would get kind of boring,” Hodgson said in the film. “And you’d be right. It is very, very dull. If you’ve got something to do, read a book, pass the time of day. It makes it more livable.”
I considered what Moulton had said in the film about the purpose of her endeavor and the role books can play. “I really appreciate the generosity of our patrons, who have many other things they could be doing and worrying about, but they are coming every week and saying hello,” Moulton said. “I feel like there’s an enormous resource that we should be having a conversation with. It’s a really valuable experience, I think, for both sides. And also a bridge. I think it’s a bridge that literature can build.”