Books by Bike

Every time I return to Portland, Oregon, where I am now, I’m astonished at the number of bikers on the street. Portland is often referred to as the biking capital of this country, although I am sure there are other cities with numerous bikers on its roadways.

I’ve never understood how there could be so many bike riders here. For nine months of the year it often rains, with occasional periods of freezing cold, once in a while it snows, and during those nine months, clouds and dense fog frequently settle over the city. How can they do this day after day? What hearty souls they must be.

Meanwhile, city planners keep adding additional bike lanes to the dismay of automobile drivers. A two-lane avenue can quickly be reduced to one lane, plus a separate bike lane, leaving those in their cars stuck in long lines of traffic, while the bikers go speeding by.

The Times recently (10/10/14) reported yet another biking development in Portland. It is said to combine its bike-friendly (“if not bike-crazed”) tradition with its literary, environmental and liberal history. The development is known as Street Books, a service designed to deliver books to the countless homeless individuals who live throughout the city.

The number of homeless individuals that live in Portland also astonishes me. When it isn’t raining or cold, they sleep anywhere they can find a legal space. When it rains, they move under bridges, highways, or deep in building alcoves that protect them from the elements.

Street Books is a non-profit book bike-delivery service to “people living outside.” It was founded by Laura Moulton, an artist and adjunct professor of creative nonfiction. She started Street Books from Kickstarter backers and raised additional funds from various grants and foundations.

Together with three part time salaried employees, she travels around the city handing out books to homeless readers. One of the employees who pedals the bike around the city commented:

“Taking books to the streets sends the message that poor and marginalized people are no so different from the “us” that defines the educated literate mainstream of the city, whether in its hipster, computer geeks or bankers. It transcends the bookish culture of Portland, though I think it’s perfect for the bookish culture of Portland.”

That’s Portland at its best. I’ve lived here for over 47 years, ever since I came to teach at Reed College. I recall visiting Portland when I was a graduate student during a summer job with an advertising company. That was more than 50 years ago.

The city then was a far cry from what it is now—old and run-down, without city planning, an environmental movement or leaders like Tom McCall who was governor of the State from during the 60s and 70s and Neil Goldschmidt who really transformed the city when he was mayor in the late 80s to 1991.

I found Portland dismal, dreary, and disappointing during that initial visit and vowed to myself that I will never live there. And look what happened!