Talking Books & Nooks with the Librotraficantes behind Bookleggers

By | July 23rd, 2012 | 3 Comments

David Gonzalez: “Vinyl records and mp3s get along just fine. So will paper books and e-readers.”

In an attempt to expand the reading community in Miami, two local literature lovers are launching a mobile library on Thursday, July 26, at Wynwood cafe Lester’s.

Described as “A library on the run”, Bookleggers will lend used books for free on the honor system, trade books to change up their selection, and let books “take a long vacation” for a $2 donation. Modeled after similar-in-spirit projects around the country, Bookleggers won’t ameliorate Miami’s dearth of libraries and bookstores all by its scrappy self, but it’s nonetheless an exciting development for those for whom happiness is a warm “Guns, Germs, and Steel”.

To learn more about the project, I traded emails with the bookleggers behind Bookleggers, David Gonzalez (DG) and occasional Beached Miami contributor Nathaniel Sandler (NS).

What sparked the idea? Why now? Why you guys?

DG: I’d been seeing all these great library projects happening around the country — like the Little Free Library, Street Books, in Portland, or the Librotraficantes who smuggled books into Arizona after AZ House Bill 2281 banned Mexican-American studies — and I kept wondering how best to pull off a similar project here in Miami. It wasn’t until World Book Night that the idea really began to take shape. I organized the giveaway and Nate was one of the volunteers that helped. That night, we gave away 114 out of 120 books. After that, the idea just started to gain more momentum.

NS: As for me specifically, I’ve always wanted to explore the other side of book propagation. Not just buying and borrowing them, but getting them to people who want them. Starting a bookstore just seemed tired. We wanted to explore something new. I think we are.

What use is a library on the run in the age of the e-book?

DG: For me, I think it’s a question of economics and accessibility. A free book, with no need for an internet connection, battery charger, or download time, beats a hundred dollar contraption every time. That said, I don’t think books and e-readers need to be mutually exclusive. Vinyl records and mp3s get along just fine. So will paper books and e-readers.

NS: In my lifetime I’ve watched the booksellers go from the traditional local shop to big box Barnes and Nobles to online giants like Amazon to the e-book. I am only 30, and capitalism has decimated then reshaped the hundred-years-old model of getting books to the public. Libraries are changing, too. With publishing and printing becoming less of a sustainable reality, so becomes the overabundance of the universal library. Every municipality across the country cannot sustain the Library of Congress. Eventually these smaller county libraries will be forced to contract and their collections will disseminate. There needs to remain in place a local service of getting books to people who want them at little to no cost. People will never lose the need for stories and information. And books are one way of getting that.

Independent bookstores are few and far between in Miami. To you, does this indicate a city lacking in literary culture or a city ripe for a literary revival? On a similar note, Miami seems to be a paradox when it comes to literature: it has one of the most impressive book fairs in the country and it also, as mentioned, has a deficiency of bookstores and libraries. What’s your take on this ostensible paradox?

DG: When it comes to literary culture here in Miami, everything, it seems, is paradoxical. We have two tremendous writing programs down here in F.I.U. and U.M., we have a fake university (University of Wynwood) specializing in contemporary poetry, we have the Miami Book Fair International, one of the largest, most respected book fairs in the country, and we have an absolute stalwart of independent bookselling in Mitchell Kaplan and Books & Books. This is to say nothing of the writers that call Miami home. But as for why Miami doesn’t have a single [general readership] bookstore on the mainland between downtown proper (the Downtown Book Center) and Aventura (Barnes & Noble) is beyond me. Paging Richard Florida.

NS: If I could step outside of the box (and on to a soapbox), I think a town with a literary culture sounds to me like a town I don’t really want to be in. I don’t need people I don’t know constantly reinforcing how literary things are around me. I think we have tons of really smart people here that are often underestimated nationally. We have readers. We have pockets of literary community that are amazing. We have fantastic local writers. What is a literary town? Are you going to tell the young girl in West Kendall sitting in her apartment writing a short story that her town isn’t literary? Just because people from New York complain about it? The whole thing seems like a label that we could stand to get past. With the internet, a town doesn’t need to be literary. People do.

Explain the honor system by which bookleggers will operate.

DG: Our rules are quite simple. Anyone who shows up can take one book, any book of their choosing, from our collection. If you bring books to trade — which we really encourage you to do — you can trade your books for our books, and you also get a free book. If, after trading your books, and getting your free book, you still can’t imagine leaving without just one more book, we’ll “sell” you a book for a “donation”.

NS: We would like people to bring books to donate because we really are trying to provide the city with a community service. I think the honor system will require people not taking advantage of a community service. If you show up without a book, you still get a book. Which is really great. That being said, if 500 people do that, we’re probably going to need to re-imagine our model. We are hoping that a lot of people will see it as a reason to get rid of books they’ve read or don’t want so others can use them. You usually don’t read a book twice. Let someone else have a crack!

You say you’re only after the good stuff on your website. Can each of you list three of your favorite books and explain why so we know what you consider to be the good stuff?

DG: My three favorite books might be someone else’s three worst books. In short, we’re looking for interesting books. The collection you’ll see at our events is a largely curated collection. You’ll find comics by Chris Ware, a socio-cultural history of the American street gang, pulp-y South Florida cracker westerns, and everything in between. Sure, we’re going to have a lot of novels, short story collections, books of poems and plays, but we’re also going to have plenty of books on art, movies, music, food, animals, something for everyone.

NS: We are looking for the good stuff mostly in the sense that we are not looking for you to show up with anything that’s been chewed on or used to line your bird cage. All books are good books to someone. We don’t want things that are dated like a basketball card price guide from 2003 or something that only applies to a small niche group like your high school yearbook. As for my favorite books, I won’t say these are my absolute favorites, but I will say these are books I wish someone had once recommended to me:

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz
The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

Bookleggers is presumably a play on the word “bootleggers”. Can you explain how you came up with the name, its significance to you?

DG: Nathaniel came up with the name Bookleggers. We knew right away he nailed it.

NS: Booklegging is an actual thing not just our construction. People that print illegal pamphlets in places where restrictions on freedom of speech and print are “bookleggers”. The subjects can be political, erotic, etc. Thomas Paine, author of the seminal Common Sense, was technically a booklegger. There was a sort of golden age of American booklegging in the ’20s and ’30s where curious Americans would buy illegally printed erotic books as a means to explore their sexuality and moralizing Americans would subsequently condemn them. As a sort of local twist, a lot of these porny books were being printed in Cuba and moved over to the States. Booklegging can also be moving, or protecting, books. The most famous literary example of booklegging is “Guy Montag”, the protagonist of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, who hides books from the fires of totalitarian oppression. Booklegging itself is effectively about protecting the printed word and disseminating the printed word. Though we are not working against any forces of oppression, we are doing just that.

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To learn more about Bookleggers, visit its website at bookleggerslibrary.com and the event page for its launch party.

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3 Comments on “Talking Books & Nooks with the Librotraficantes behind Bookleggers”

  1. 1 Denise said at 1:06 am on July 24th, 2012:

    I think this is an awesome project and agree it fills a need. I feel compelled to point out, though, that MDPLS (although suffering major hits to budget and staffing) managed to avoid closing those 13 libraries. They also have pretty cool Bookmobiles you should check out sometime.

  2. 2 Jordan Melnick said at 8:48 am on July 24th, 2012:

    Denise, thanks for pointing that out: It’s true, the 13 libraries were spared. The general point about a dearth of access to free books in Miami is nonetheless true, in my view.

  3. 3 nathaniel sandler said at 7:21 pm on July 24th, 2012:

    With regards local libraries I wasn’t referring at any moment to the Miami-Dade system in particular, though I am aware of the problems it faces. I think what I was saying about the potential this is true of libraries across the country, not just here. Part of what we want to do is create and put in place a support ring if that ever happens.


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