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Feature: Laura Moulton and Street Books

It all started with a grant.

A Regional Arts and Culture Council grant to be exact. Initially, writer, artist and English instructor Laura Moulton began the mobile library Street Books as a summer project – a social experiment of sorts.

"I had no idea if this would be a need," she said.

By the end of summer, it was clear that her small project was indeed a meaningful resource for the homeless of Portland, Oregon. She set up a Kickstarter campaign that generated enough funds to carry the project through the winter months. Street Books is now a nonprofit with 501c3 status.

"Literature can save anyone, regardless of circumstances," Moulton said.

In the beginning

Street Books began in the summer of 2011. Moulton situated a box with pull-out shelves at the front of a reverse tricycle. Her brother designed the light-blue box with old-timey black font. Moulton wanted something vintage-looking and slightly "battered," to use her description. The look perfectly communicates the kind of service Moulton provides – no frills, no pretense, no literary snobbery. Just good 'ol fashioned literature.

At first, Moulton had to convince people that she was not selling books. The notion of a free, public, mobile library that required no ID was met with suspicion at the outset. Once she started developing relationships with her patrons, Street Books found its groove and lived into the identity it holds today – that of a bicycle-powered, mobile library for people who live outside.

There are no late fees. No digitized library catalog. Patrons fill out a loan card from the "old-school" pocket on the book's inside cover. Moulton acknowledges there was a lot of skepticism when she started; the expectation was that books would not be returned. This proved to be untrue.

"I've always had an amazing rate of return," Moulton said. "The returned books may be beat to hell, well read and touched by rain, but they're returned."

Hers is a library that respects the dignity of every human being. And it challenges preconceptions, expectations and assumptions with every book loaned.

A conversation starter

Street Books was always meant to be more than a mobile library. Moulton wanted her project to be a conversation starter. An awareness piece. With Street Books, Moulton and her team are not only filling a need – that of accessible literature for all – but they're facilitating a dialogue about the assumptions we carry with us in the urban environment. Street Books is accomplishing this through photographs and its blog.

When patrons check out books, Moulton asks their permission to take a picture of them and their books. She believes there is power in pairing people's faces with their choice of reading material.

For example, mustached, bandana-wearing Dante chose Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Pamela, one of Moulton's regular patrons, has a fondness for wilderness literature and wolves. Another regular, Ben, has posed with his literary choices: Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck and Dog Eats Dog by Iain Levison.

One of her first patrons was Thomas, a tattooed young man with facial piercing and ear gauges. He wanted to check out Charles Frazier's book Cold Mountain.

"My mind was blown on my first shift," Moulton said, in reference to Thomas. "No way could I assume anything about anyone."

Street Books also facilitates conversation and community amongst its patrons.

"It's created an intersection where there was no intersection before," Moulton shared. As patrons and the curious gather around her library, conversations about literature arise between strangers. Some are a few minutes long beside Skidmore Fountain; others develop into passionate debates. Street Books has opened a space to dialogue about books and literature, no matter where you live or where you work.

Service as the classroom

Moulton's commitment to service finds its way into her classes at Marylhurst, most obviously in the course Writing and Service. She blends the study of nonfiction with public service projects, and students are asked to find and document a story that would otherwise go untold.

This theme of "overlooked stories" crops up time and again – from the nonfiction novels that students discuss in class to the overarching mission of Street Books. Through coursework and public service, Moulton encourages her students to become keen observers and empathetic listeners, as well as stronger writers. For Moulton, the attention to the overlooked and untold is not just part of a syllabus or her mobile library. It is a lifestyle.

Looking forward to summer

Moulton is already gearing up for another summer of Street Books. She will be running three shifts per week: Old Town/Skidmore Fountain (Monday), SE Portland/Voz/St. Francis (Wednesday) and Elephant Park/Park Blocks (Saturday). Staff and volunteers usually work between 10am and 2pm. Interested in taking part? Contact Laura Moulton at librarian@streetbooks.org. Or you can financially contribute; all donations go towards purchasing used paperbacks for the library, bicycle maintenance, and staffing costs. Learn more at StreetBooks.org.

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