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Literary Activism

Taking Books to the Streets: the House of SpeakEasy Bookmobile

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Clare Barnett

Staff Writer

Clare Barnett lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her husband and daughter. She delves into all genres but has a soft spot for fantasy, mystery, and memoir. When she’s not working her way through her to-read list, she’s reading and writing about bookish things. Twitter: @clarebar. Inquiries:

Depending on your tastes, you might be lured in by the SpeakEasy name or the chalkboard that says “Free Books.” The phrase SpeakEasy Bookmobile conjures up images of the bookish equivalent of a grownup ice cream truck: a literary-minded mobile cocktail bar. While that would be supremely cool (also #goals) the actual House of SpeakEasy Bookmobile is more inspiring, delivering free and low-cost books to New York City neighborhoods that lack access to bookstores and libraries. Check out this TikTok to see the SpeakEasy Bookmobile in action. 

Here Comes the Book Truck

According to the project’s website, the Bookmobile is a “27-foot-long box truck, retrofitted with bookshelves that allow for open-air access.” The maroon truck is emblazoned with the tagline “Bringing Books to Readers.” Started in 2017, the Bookmobile brings the book-browsing experience curbside, offering a range of diverse books for free or low-cost. Readers from neighborhoods that lack bookstores can experience the joy of browsing new reads and rifling the pages of brand new books with uncracked spines.

The Bookmobile is a project of House of SpeakEasy, a New York–based nonprofit that describes its mission as providing a place where “authors and their audiences come together in innovative and sustaining way.” Their signature program is a “literary cabaret” called “Seriously Entertaining,” which sounds like a cross between an improv book reading and witty author panel. The organization is also committed to literacy with the Bookmobile and the SpeakTogether program, which promotes collaborations between writers and students and teachers in Brooklyn, The Bronx, and Manhattan public schools and at community centers. 

The House of SpeakEasy has partnered with the NYC Department of Transportation, the New York City Housing Authority, Behind the Book, and Red Hook Initiative to provide Bookmobile events in The Bronx, East Harlem, and Brooklyn. These events often bring along authors and illustrators to provide workshops to kids and adults.  In addition to offering books, the Bookmobile recently distributed 850 backpacks  and school supplies through a partnership with Made for Me Books and the New York City Housing Authority.

The SpeakEasy Bookmobile Hits the Road

In 2019, you may have seen the Bookmobile in your city. The House of SpeakEasy hit the road with a tour in June 2019 which went from New York City to New Orleans and back, stopping in 18 towns over 16 days. According to the project’s website, they distributed over “5,000 titles donated by publishers and purchased from independent booksellers,” in addition to hosting workshops, story exchanges, and readings. Publishers Weekly noted that cities visited included Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Columbus, Ohio; Floyd County, Kentucky; Nashville, Tennessee; Jackson, Mississippi; and Arnaudville, Lafayette, and New Orleans, Louisiana.  In addition to offering free books, the Bookmobile made special deliveries of  classroom sets for schools, libraries, and books-to-prison programs. During the tour, the Bookmobile covered 4,000 miles and 14 states. 

Thanks to the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, the Bookmobile will sometimes transform into an Artmobile to deliver art-related books to aspiring young artists and visual storytellers as well as talks, workshops, and readings to kids in New York City. 

Keep on Trucking: People Love Bookmobiles

Books on wheels have long been a way to reach underserved readers. Smithsonian Magazine has a picture of the Perambulating Library, a horse-drawn cart from 1859 in Warrington, England. One of the first American bookmobiles (also horse-drawn) was captured in a Washington, D.C., photograph in 1902. By the 1920s, most bookmobiles had traded horses for motor engines. By then, they had become a critical part of library system’s efforts to reach readers who lacked easy access to the library buildings. 

cover image of The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan showing a bookstore window

The appeal of bookmobiles has outlasted the horse drawn carts. Readers of Jenny Colgan’s The Bookshop on the Corner will be familiar with the baking truck turned mobile bookstore. New York Public Library has its own bookmobile, where NYPL card holders can check out books and learn more about the library. Search the hashtag #bookmobile on Instagram, and you’ll be rewarded with supremely cute takes on the books on wheels concept, used by libraries, nonprofits like House of SpeakEasy, and for-profit bookstores. If you’re feeling inspired, here’s how to start a bookmobile of your own!

To find out where the House of SpeakEasy Bookmobile will be next, check out their Instagram. To learn more about SpeakEasy programs or support the Bookmobile, check out their website or shop the organization’s Bookshop.