Arts & Culture

Jewcy Interviews: Gabriel Levinson, Founder of the Book Bike Project

Gabriel Levinson is the founder of the Book Bike project, a library on wheels-a tricycle, to be exact-that travels around Chicago distributing free literature to those interested. His project, which originated in July of 2008, has evolved into something even … Read More

By / July 19, 2010

Gabriel Levinson is the founder of the Book Bike project, a library on wheels-a tricycle, to be exact-that travels around Chicago distributing free literature to those interested. His project, which originated in July of 2008, has evolved into something even more impressive than just a mobile library. This summer, Levinson threw the focus of his project on producers of independent literature, using funds raised through various donations to purchase such reading material and, in turn, give it away for free, not only helping to financially support small and independent publishers, but disseminate their work. 

 

Tell me a little bit about yourself. Are you from Chicago? I hear you are an editor at a literary magazine. How did you get involved in the literary scene?

I’m from St. Louis. My first foray into the literary world was as publisher of a short-lived satirical newspaper called The Kumar, which saw distro for a couple of issues only in STL. I moved up to Chicago in 2001 and received a BA in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago. Straight out of school, I started as associate editor of Make: A Chicago Literary Magazine. I then became reviews editor of Make, a position I started at the magazine. (I am still connected with Make as a contributor). During my time with Make, I also worked as an editor and contributor for the online magazine Is Greater Than. I’ve been ensconced in Chicago’s explosive and fun literary scene, be it through the above positions or being a part of different readings throughout the city. I was also a member of Reading Under the Influence. While I still am connected with IGT and Make, I made the choice to step down from my roles as editor so that I could focus on the Book Bike. I’ve written book reviews for Stop Smiling and Make, contributed short fiction to Significant Objects (and now to the Book Bike) and contributed interviews to Make and IGT both. (My personal favorite interview was with Eduardo Galeano which was published in Make Issue #4). I also have freelanced articles for various sites but the Book Bike has been taking a majority of my attention lately.

 

How did you come up with the concept of a "book bike"? How has it grown from an idea to a reality, and evolve from there? The Book Bike is beneficial for the both producers-indie presses, small publishing houses-and consumers-people who read books. How did you develop this model?

I wanted to figure out a way to connect with our community-at-large in Chicago, to maybe open people’s eyes up to the extraordinary Chicago literary scene (not to mention our extraordinary literary history…Nelson Algren for one). How can we get books to people who may not be thinking about going to the library or a reading or to a bookstore? Reviews and readings are all well and good, but if we’re playing to the same crowd, to what purpose is all this? I believed and believe that there is a way to get the general public intrigued by books, it just takes a direct connection. The idea of the Book Bike was as direct as I could figure it: Just bring the books to the people, the rest is up to them.

Everything I do is trial-by-fire. I like to take an idea and throw it to the lions and see what they go for. In that regard, then, the Book Bike and its evolution to date, is due in no small part to the community. It started as book donations from publishers. Then it got some decent Chicago press and I started getting book donations from people with books collecting dust on their shelves. And this summer I finally hit on how to make this a full-circle project: Now all the books given away are purchased from locally-owned (independent) bookstores. So not only do passers-by benefit, but every book taken home has directly supported a locally-owned bookstore. If people don’t donate money to buy the books, then there won’t be any books to give.

 

I know it’s heavy-handed, but I have to ask: What are your thoughts on the future of publishing industry? Why are books, in their traditional form, important, and how does the Book Bike fit into this equation?

Ooof, thoughts on the future of publishing, eh? I wrote an article for Publishing Perspectives called "The Rise of Cause Publishing", that should give you an idea of my thoughts on what can be done, it doesn’t mean I think its the only way.

I don’t have much to say on what makes books in the printed form important per se, but I can speak personally about it: Every book on my bookshelf has a history that goes beyond its content. I can pull any book off my shelf and not only tell you about what’s written in there, but I can tell you how it got in my collection, why it matters to me. My books are my autobiography. Scan the titles on my shelf and you’ll learn about my life, you’ll have an idea of who I am; and that doesn’t just apply to me, I think that can be said for anyone’s personal library. The Book Bike is there to inspire someone to start, or further, their own library; to write their personal history through the words and ideas of our great authors throughout time.

I’m not looking to start a debate on e-books vs printed because I think there is no debate. They both have their place and their purpose; e-books are fine, I see them as another tool for readers, and there is nothing wrong with that. Enough with this "print is dead" bullshit, let’s live together, eh? I can’t afford an e-reader, so there’s not much for me to comment on its benefits, and I know I’m not in the minority in that regard, but with time the prices will drop and more of us will have a chance to see what its all about. I will say this though: Back to what you can find on my shelf…The books there have a history. If there’s a bent page or a torn cover, there is a story to that. If I drop a book, I can pick it up, dust it off, and read on. (If I drop an e-book, I’m out hundreds of dollars, no?) And I have a lot of signed books, so that adds another layer, another story to tell beyond the content. A story someone can hold and ask about. I can’t do that with an e-book, I can’t go see my favorite author read from his or her newest book and ask them to sign my e-book. E-books are cool, no doubt, but they have no history. Also, I don’t need a battery to read a book…hell, I don’t even need to pay my electric bill either! The light of the sun will do (and I imagine if you’re in someplace like Montana, the stars at night).

In addition, I respect books as objects, I think I can speak for all book lovers there; we proudly display our collection. I remember one time when working at Printers Row, a woman came in asking if we had anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald. We had a few. I don’t recall which book it was that I showed her (would have been a first edition, first printing) but it was signed by Fitzgerald. I was holding it at the time and her eyes popped wide open, there was a moment of silence. I asked her if she wanted to hold the book, in a near-whisper she said "Can I?" When she held it in her hands, with reverence mind you, I saw that she was crying. Holding this book, signed by this author, moved her emotionally. Its just a book, yeah? Its a dusty old collection of paper and glue with a scrawl of ink on it by the dead guy whose name is on the cover…and just holding this moved her to tears. Long live the death of books, I say.

 

In light of library cuts-in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, the local library is actually shut down for the summer-what role does the Book Bike play, and what message does it send?

That makes me so sad that your library shut down for the summer, that shouldn’t be allowed, not ever, not in America. Libraries in summer are places of wonder for children, I speak from experience. As a kid growing up in Webster Groves, Missouri, the Webster Groves Public Library was the center of my universe, especially come summertime. No more required reading, I had the freedom to discover…How many books I devoured there, after a time the librarians recognized me and they came to understand that I wasn’t going to relegate my reading to the kid’s section; I was unstoppable…with book: invincible.

The Chicago Public Library and I agree that the Book Bike — whose spirit and mission of a love of books is kindred — is able to get to places in our communities that the brick-and-mortar cannot. We believe that everyone has the right to literature, to the plethora of resources and ideas one will find, in a library.

A side note, but a few weeks back Fox News ran a bogus story called "Are Libraries Necessary or a waste of Tax Money?" Must have been a slow news day…something wonderful did come out of that bit of ridiculousness: read (Chicago Public Library Commissioner) Mary Dempsey’s letter to Fox News after that aired. This should be required reading for anyone and everyone.