National Bookmobile Day: Historically SpeakEasy

National Bookmobile Day: Historically SpeakEasy

At House of SpeakEasy we believe that book-ownership should be a right, not a privilege.

In 2017, with the help of Billy and Kathy Rayner, we launched The SpeakEasy Bookmobile.

We came up with the design logo – but – historically speaking – the idea was Aristotle’s.

Owning a book is a unique form of wealth. What the SpeakEasy BookMobile is doing is enabling that wealth to be shared.

The kings of Babylon built the first libraries. But they weren’t so interested in the sharing part. This is where Aristotle comes in. He amassed the largest private collection of books in the world, and let it circulate.

But since not everyone could read, Aristotle also shared the knowledge they contained by giving free lectures throughout Athens. He turned himself into a bookmobile – on legs.

Aristotle’s mission was the same as SpeakEasy’s today: to foster a sense of community, spread ideas, and educate young people.

Libraries and mass literacy were among the first casualties from the Fall of Rome in the 5th century. Book ownership became the greatest privilege of all. Few people ever questioned why it should be this way until the rise of universal education in the 19th century.

Step forward the working-class members of the Mechanics Institute in Warrington, England.

Frustrated with living in a book desert, in 1859 they raised 275 pounds – about $35,000 to day – for a “Perambulating Library”. In its first year it lent out over 12,000 books.

In the US, the credit for America’s first bookmobile belongs to Miss Mary Titcomb, head librarian of Washington County, Maryland. She was very proper, kind of scary, and a total visionary. “The book goes to the man”, she declared. To make that happen, in 1904, she purchased a horse-drawn wagon with specially fitted shelves, just like House of SpeakEasy’s.

Her idea spread like wildfire.

During the Great Depression, the WPA funded its own fleet of bookmobiles – even the Defense Department got on board, sending converted jeeps to the front lines during World War II.

By 1956, more than 30 million Americans were relying on bookmobiles. Margaret Atwood once wrote, “the Bookmobile was the whole world parked on my gravel road.” Even today, in the age of the Internet, there are over 600 bookmobiles in service.

But SpeakEasy BookMobile does something different.

It goes where the need is greatest and distributes new books for free. We launched shortly after the last general bookstore in the Bronx, – home to 1.5 million residents – closed its doors.

What does that mean? According to an NYU study, it means neighborhoods where there is 1 children’s book per 300 children.

The BookMobile doesn’t just serve the Five Boroughs. In 2019, the year before Covid, it drove 4,000 miles across country, visiting 18 cities in 14 states. Seriously Entertaining went with it, and we distributed over 10,000 books along the way.

The Pandemic created a lot of need, and the BooKMobile was there to help, thanks to the Mayor’s Office, Bank of America, and Amazon Literary Partnerships. We even started a whole new books program – the Artmobile – with a generous grant from the Helen frankenthaler Foundation.

There is so much more more we want to achieve. We don’t need ChatGPT to imagine what future SpeakEasy BookMobiles might look like – but we asked it anyway.

We’re proud that the SpeakEasy Bookmobile is part of a long tradition, and with your support we will continue the work of those who came before us.

On small presses, reading, writing and determination

On small presses, reading, writing and determination

Bookseller Maritza Montañez consults with a Bookmobile visitor, offering guidance on selections

The Bookmobile at Small Press Flea, 2022

On Saturday, August 20th, the Bookmobile rolled up onto the concourse of the Grand Army branch of the Brooklyn Public Library for the annual Small Press Flea (SPF). Throughout the day, hundreds of book lovers of all stripes mingled with the regular patrons of the weekly farmer’s market happening across the street.

The SPF debuted nine years ago, a collaboration between a dozen or so independent publishers. Since then, the event has grown exponentially, drawing over 30 vendors, including independent publishers, magazines, and presses, such as One Story, n+1, and A Public Space. It attracts Brooklyn’s literari from all boroughs. It was no coincidence that SpeakEasy staffers kept seeing familiar faces from editors at Reckless Books and Archipelago pass by.

Unlike the majority of our bookmobile deployments, where we distribute brand new free books to communities in need, the SPF presented a rare opportunity for us to sell books., A portion of the proceeds go directly to support our year-round outreach programs, embodied by the Bookmobile itself.. We partnered with Greenlight Books who provided us books at bargain rates for the bookworm on a budget.

This year, we featured titles from authors who had recently performed at SpeakEasy’s Seriously Entertaining shows at Joe’s Pub in the East Village. These included Greenland by David Santos Donaldson’s, Smile and Love Poems in Quarantine by Sarah Ruhl, The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris, as well as other authors we have featured on stage and in schools, such as the graphic memoir Good Talk by Mira Jacob, who spoke at Joe’s in January 2020.

I was struck by visitors’ reactions’ to the various books on display. In terms of fiction, particularly popular was Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming, which follows a 30-something wedding planner and her brother against the backdrop of the 2017 Hurricane Maria in their family’s native Puerto Rico. I was thrilled to see Braiding Sweetgrass (by Robin Wall Kimmerer) on the truck’s shelves, and equally excited that the memoir Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis by Grace Lavery was out as well; Grace performed for Seriously Entertaining earlier earlier this year (and was a professor at my alma mater).

After making their rounds with independent publishers tabling at the event, visitors were able to visit our truck, learn about our outreach efforts, and pick up a book of their own if they so-pleased.

At one point during the day, I got to speak with art historian and literary critic Jan Castro, who reviewed Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King, also on display, for the American Book Review. She’d read it favorably, and shared the piece with me afterwards. The novel follows Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia via a friendship of two Ethiopian women: Hirut and Aster. Of the two, Jan writes, “They somehow rise from their respective positions in a culture dominated by family traditions, class, and male hierarchies of military and political leadership. The choruses, photos, and classic myths in the novel all suggest metaphorically that not only has their time come, but ours as well — if we can gain the skills, tools, and resources to rise up.”

The theme of “rising up,” as one might expect at a festival celebrating small, New York-based presses, came up repeatedly in my conversations. I also chatted with Bruce McPherson, founder of McPherson & Co. of Kingston, NY. I asked him what he would, of the offerings on the table, recommend. He pointed me towards two 20th century female writers, both hidden gems (under-recognized giant is an oxymoron) in their fields: French writer and New Yorker Ursule Molinaro and English modernist Mary Butts. He praised the former’s reinvention of tragic Greek tropes of femininity, and her contemporary cultural analyses drawn from them. He called the latter a classical myth-handler in her own right. I left with a copy of Butts’ The Taverner Novels.

For all the bustle of the day, the event wound down gradually, with crowds thinning at dusk. As we packed up the remaining titles, several friendly publishers stopped to say goodbye and offer their support. Verso Books even donated a box of books, which took a dedicated place on our shelves for the next couple of events.

We were thankful for the donation, a testament to our shared commitment to the importance of free distribution of knowledge.

Ryan Tuozzolo is a writer living in Crown Heights. You can contact her at [email protected]

On supporting a (reading) ecosystem

On supporting a (reading) ecosystem

The Bookmobile at Red Hook Initiative

August 11 was another hot day in New York City. When the Bookmobile rolled up to Red Hook, Brooklyn for a graduation celebration in partnership with the Red Hook Initiative, it was met by six-year-old Jeremiah — who had a plan. Clad in a bright red, Nike-checked shirt and pleated jeans, he stood confidently in front of the Bookmobile as he offered his help: “If there’s an emergency for you guys, ask me to come.” 

He continued: “When I have superpowers, I will fly. But the only way I will use my powers to fly is when I’m saving the world … I have a secret — I made my own armor, out of leather and gold.” I asked Jeremiah if he wanted a book. He did, and I suggested one near the front of the shelf we were standing beside: From the Tops of Trees, from Kao Kalia Young and Rachel Wada. He accepted it with a smile and held it up. “I like trees, because they’re earth!”

Jeremiah wasn’t alone. He was accompanied by his aunt and his older brother, seven-year-old Messiah, or “Mass Mass,” as Jeremiah called him. Messiah chose a copy of So You Want to Be an Owl by Jane Porter and Maddie Frost. Jeremiah wouldn’t want to be one: “All you do is stay up in the morning and look for your babies and hunt out. It’s bored being an owl.” He’d stick with his trees. 

Lively brothers Messiah (left) and Jeremiah of Red Hook. The pair were not shy in choosing books — and engaged in lively discussion about the relative value of owls vs. trees.

Jeremiah was not the only tree-loving superhero in attendance, but he was among the youngest. August 11 marked the end of Red Hook Initiative’s Freedom Schools program, part of the Children’s Defense Fund. This graduation ceremony, primarily for 9th and 10th graders, included painting, food, presentations from community leaders and, of course, books. Modeled on the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project, Red Hook Initiative provides six weeks of academic enrichment courses for youth promoting critical thinking, literacy skills, and social action across grade levels—just one of their many programs that support communities of the Red Hook Houses. Since its founding 20 years ago by Jill Eisenhard, Red Hook Initiative’s programs have served over 10,000 individuals who call this area home. The nonprofit focuses on young people, offering year-round opportunities for nearly 500 middle schoolers, young adults, and high schoolers every year. 

It was refreshing to meet with some students participating in this program. The gathering was small, and everyone took turns approaching the Bookmobile, sometimes bringing a friend along. In characteristic fashion, many of the teens were nonchalant. I watched two girls who looked around 13 years old debate their selections. Both opted for YA romances—Melissa Gorzelanczyl’s Arrows and Jenna Evans Welch’s Love & Olives—before returning to the painting stations, which were adjacent to the watermelon and burger stands that were the true draw of the day. 

Other visitors included the dedicated staff of Red Hook Initiative, browsing largely for their own children back home. Naiyma Holmes, Director of People Operations & Culture, approached the truck with a bright smile. “I’m waiting for the day when I can have a library. Right now I just have a big shelf,” she said. She was searching specifically for a title for her three-year-old son. “He loves to read books, just like me. He’s currently teaching himself to play piano, and can already play ‘Old Macdonald’ and ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ He has an incredible memory.” She ultimately landed on Danna Smith and Ana Zurita’s One Blue Gnu, because her son loves numbers, she said. 

Another visitor, Olabisi, came to Red Hook from Brownsville for a COVID test, which led her to stumble upon the Bookmobile. She left with The Fearless Flights of Hazel Ying Lee.

Ms. Holmes of RHI, with Danna Smith’s One Blue Gnu, a counting book published this year about a cellphone-wielding wildebeest. The book is for her three-year-old son, whose appetite for books, she said, is hard to keep up with.

Red Hook Houses has experienced many challenges over the past decade, from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy to the online programming pivot necessitated by the pandemic. This community—almost half of which is living below the federal poverty line—has borne a disproportionate brunt of the effects of climate change and public health crises in the New York metro area. In response, Red Hook Initiative has responded with efforts to spread awareness of these issues and to promote social action. 

I spoke with Director of Community Building, Catherine McBride, who provided a glimpse into the extent of RHI’s work in community resiliency. Catherine started working with RHI in 2012, shortly after Hurricane Sandy hit, and oversees “client intakes and referrals, connecting people to resources and grant-making.” She says she facilitates distributing about $100,000 dollars each year, helping people pay their bills. She also supervises a group of youth advocates. “A lot of the work we’re doing on the community building side is long-term projects. We’re building on what we’ve done in the past. It feels pretty fluid,” she said. 

How fitting, I thought after speaking with Catherine, to have encountered Jeremiah and Messiah upon our arrival and discussed trees and birds on this exceptionally hot August afternoon. Much of RHI’s work has to do with helping residents maintain roots in a community that is regularly battling economic, social, and climactic upheavals. In other words, it’s essential work of fostering balanced and symbiotic ecosystems — owls, trees, people, books and all — amidst the upheavals.

Ryan Tuozzolo is a writer living in Crown Heights. You can contact her at [email protected] 

On Loving a Place

On Loving a Place

The SpeakEasy Bookmobile on Juneteenth Weekend

On my first outing with the SpeakEasy Bookmobile, I was told to expect the unexpected when it came to the types of books people might find appealing. I was happily surprised by what I witnessed on my first of two days with the truck. For starters, I had assumed that the small pile of math reference books that SpeakEasy has accumulated would not receive much traction — until a beaming young woman approached us and specifically requested them. Reading tastes were varied:

“Do you have any how-to photography books?”

“I’m looking for something on metaphysics.”

“Historical fiction, like maybe about the Mona Lisa.”

Also, to my joy, poetry books I placed prominently on the truck’s shelves were scooped up — a bilingual edition of Cesar Vallejo’s collected poems; The Kissing of Kissing by Hannah Emerson (whom I had the great pleasure of seeing at the Poetry Project in late May); and Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic.

Last month’s Juneteenth weekend saw the Bookmobile loaded up with piles of book donations and hitting the streets in multiple boroughs. On Saturday and Sunday, July 18 & 19, we visited the John Adams Houses in the southern Bronx neighborhood of Woodstock on one day, and followed up on the next day with an afternoon spent at the Brooklyn Museum in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. In each location, we distributed hundreds of free books, all brand new titles to visitors that included families, artists, writers, and the random passers-by.

The weekend presented an opportunity for educators, parents, teenagers, children, artists, and writers to come together to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. Both days were promoted as Juneteenth celebrations and featured a mix of art-making, food, dance, and more. The Bookmobile was welcomed by visitors young and old alike, each offering smiles and words of thanks:

“This is really dope.”

“Thank you very much for being here.”

“My kids will love this.”

“Where can we find you next?”

Their comments were heartening, as was the sight of young people’s hands reaching high for titles on the truck’s shelves — Chlorine Sky and Operation Sisterhood, both titles from YA writer Mahogany L. Browne, were in high demand, as well as Operation Sisterhood by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. Adults found titles that spoke to them, too, from Buki Papillon’s An Ordinary Wonder, to Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, to Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist.

Amidst the celebrations, the weekend called for quiet reflection as well, eliciting comments from visitors in Woodstock and Crown Heights. “I’m waiting for my granddaughter,” Maria Crespo, a middle-aged woman with a kind smile, told me in The Bronx. She was standing beside the Bookmobile on 152nd St. “The library at Southern Boulevard and Tiffany has been closed for months.” She continued: “My granddaughter is seven. She’s always watching me and her mom because we’re always reading.”

The lack of book culture for youth in The Bronx is often bemoaned, but on the day we visited, childrens’ books were flying off the shelves all day long, as kids piled free books in their arms, including such titles as Laura Vacaro Seeger’s elegant picture books Lemons Are Not Red, Blue, and Dog and Bear, Philip C. Stead’s Creamed Tuna Fish & Peas on Toast, and Frank Le Gall’s Rooftop Cat. I kneeled down to meet the eyes of a four-year old boy and together we turned the pages of a small Roaring Book Press publication, about a friendship between a rabbit and a mouse. I asked him to identify the different animals as we flipped through it together, and he answered without hesitation: “rabbit!” “mouse!” “elephant!”

Six-year-old Renesme of Woodstock, The Bronx, with her pick of books — including the Caldecott-winning My Friend Rabbit.

On Saturday, in front of the John Adams Houses in The Bronx, a street festival took shape near the Bookmobile featuring an assortment of food vendors, art installations, and a DJ at which young children giggled and swayed. There was also a table dedicated to art projects for kids, overseen by ArtBridge, SpeakEasy’s partner for the day. Here, ArtBridge’s Program Director Jon Souza, a young man with a gentle demeanor, led a small group of children — some already with books plucked off the truck in hand— through simple art activities. Souza grew up in Harlem and has established himself as a graffiti/mural artist and musician. He’s also a practiced arts educator and cultural ambassador with a Master’s degree from Columbia in advanced management and finance. Unsurprisingly, he seemed highly sensitive and attuned to those around him, as well as highly competent and organized.

A nonprofit that aspires, as House of SpeakEasy does, to provide access to books and book culture to communities that are traditionally underserved, the organization finds a common sense of purpose with other nonprofits doing complementary work. Souza has clearly devoted significant time to the issues of how best to provide access to the arts: “Art that connects to a social value or social issue, that’s my thing. That’s kind of what brought me to ArtBridge, you know. Thinking about, How do I come into a community to make sure it’s actually culturally relevant, that there’s actually a strong impact that speaks to the community? How do I make sure I reach that voice and make sure it’s represented?”

ArtBridge’s mission has, since its inception in 2008, centered on creating public art, primarily on sidewalk sheds and scaffolding. More recently, they’ve partnered with the New York City Housing Authority—which is also a SpeakEasy partner—to commission installations from 59 artists at 16 different NYCHA sites, with support from Mayor Eric Adams. “Our hope is also to make sure, with the community, that it’s a collaborative, creative process, so every program, every center has 3–5 workshops, run by the artists, where we invite in the community — community centers, senior centers, resident associations.”

For Souza, the mobilization of public art carries particular import in times of widespread social upheaval: “I think especially after the pandemic, it was a time for the creators. People didn’t know what to do, and now, especially with the youth, public art needs to be out there. And people respond to it, and the impact is visible.” He looked back down at the table in front of him, which was lined with a wide sheet of drawing paper on which children were coloring: “When we talk about equity, how do we bring up artists who are street artists for real? They don’t have an MFA, they might not have a college degree, but they’re really amazing. They really have their ear to the street, and they have a connection to the community. There’s a different kind of value there, you know what I mean? There’s always a question of how we can actually be with the community, and the people who are actually from the community.”

On the same day in The Bronx, I met Vernon “Chip” Turner, Jr., a resident of the Adams Houses. Turner was dressed brightly — a red baseball cap facing backwards with matching red apron, gray jeans rolled up to the calves, true white socks and Nike sneakers, and a smart mahogany corduroy coat. An artist, painter, photographer, carpenter, and writer, Turner had been waiting by a table we had set up, flipping through a selection of oversized art books and commenting on the pieces he liked or knew. He’s 67, he told me — “I’m 66 — no, I’m 67. I keep making myself younger” — and grew up in The Bronx. His father was also born in New York, and his mother in Chicago. Energetic and engaged, he speaks in starts and with a lisp. When I asked to record our discussion, he said, “Sure, but you won’t be able to understand me. I have different personality traits,” he explained. “So I need to calm down.” What helps with the condition? Art, lots of it, and community engagement. “My program is called PROS [Personalized Recovery Oriented Services]. I go there and we do different things — art, poetry. I do that now. It’s the therapy for me. … Art, poetry, people, writing poems about people. I try to sketch them. This is what helps me out, relaxes me.”

Vernon “Chip” Turner of the Adams Houses with an original painting, “The Village,” in hand.

I asked him what he wished he saw more widely around his community now. His response: “I think people should make their own books, like tiny books and poetry, with drawings on the front page. … Like you’re interviewing me, I think that they need to be interviewed, too.” Also: basketball. We were standing next to a court as we spoke, and he gestured towards it: “I sit right there on the bench where they have music, and I watch the kids, I cheer them on, I say, ‘Get fancy on ‘em!’, ‘Shakin’ ‘em up.’ Yeah. I like kids that like to express themselves. I like little ones.” As he spoke, I was moved by his evident dedication to his people. During our conversation, he stopped periodically to speak to passers-by, adults and children alike: “Okay, you take care now! May God bless you and may you live a long time! Give back to the community for a long time, alright?”

In the end, what did I feel throughout the Juneteenth festivities? Joy, for certain— a celebration of community and the excitement of putting books in readers’ hands. But also a sense of collective anxiety — hearing residents speak of recent violence on their streets, soaring food costs, and relatives ill from the continuing pandemic. Again and again, however, I saw individuals’ commitment to the neighborhoods they call home: in a woman’s determined search for a book for her granddaughter; in the granddaughter’s excitement to crack open that book; in families’ willingness to come out for the festivities while gun violence is on the rise in the city and the country. In all of this, I was reminded of the memoir On Juneteenth by Dr. Annette Gordon-Reed, Harvard Law Professor, historian, and Pulitzer Prize–winning author. Discussing her relationship with her birth-state of Texas, she wrote: “When asked, as I have been very often, to explain what I love about Texas, given all that I know of what has happened there — and is still happening there — the best response I can give is that this is where my first family and connections were. Love does not require taking an uncritical stance toward the objects of one’s affections. In truth, it often requires the opposite. We can’t be of real service to the hopes we have for places — and people, ourselves included — without a cleareyed assessment of their (and our) strengths and weaknesses.” To look, and to look, and to look (to keep our eyes open). To love. And, perhaps, to be of service. As the Bookmobile moves ahead with a summer of community outreach, I hope to learn and practice these values. To uplift, as “Chip” put it, the “art, poetry, people” at the center of each outing.

Ryan Tuozzolo is a writer living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and a Book Specialist for House of SpeakEasy. You can reach her at [email protected]