By Peter Barnes
Given that most of her clientele slept outside, Laura Moulton assumed she wouldn’t see the books again. Yet by summer’s end in 2011, most found their way back to the world’s first bicycle-powered street library, as did a growing number of homeless Portlanders filling a basic cultural need that most take for granted.
“I biked up to my library shift and saw this guy named Keith waiting there with his book to return it to me,” said Moulton, recounting the waning days of August when she’d exhausted a grant supporting her idea to bring literature outdoors. “I realized that I couldn’t just high five them and say, ‘Have a great life – thanks for participating in my art project.’ And I decided to just keep it going.”
With three librarians, a growing catalogue and bona fide 501(c)(3) tax status, Street Books became a permanent Portland, Ore., fixture earlier this year. It’s a concept that churned plenty of buzz in a town saturated with cyclists. Yet it’s only the latest waypoint in a long trail of projects blending art and service since Moulton explored both as an Eastern graduate student.
The 42-year-old Idaho native earned her bachelor’s from Brigham Young University, then joined EWU’s master of fine arts program in creative writing after a year of teaching English in Taiwan. Advised by celebrated Northwest author and Professor Emeritus John Keeble, she balanced her own writing workshops with leadership in the long-standing Writers in the Community Program. Moulton connected her classmates with at-risk youth in Spokane schools and inmates at Geiger Corrections Center. She began helping people well outside the literary world explore the stories of their own lives, and she hasn’t stopped since.
“It’s impossible for me not to construct a narrative about someone and sort of feel empathy for them,” said Moulton. Her published essays touching on perceptions of poverty and homelessness reflect that. The same went for her widely viewed art installation commissioned at Portland State University in 2009 entitled Object Permanence, which invited students and passersby to record stories about everyday items in their lives that carry deep personal meaning.
After graduating in 1997, another stretch in Taiwan, and founding a literary journal that dispensed slips of poetry from gumball machines, Moulton settled in Portland and began teaching English as a second language. She’s worked as a writer in residence at eight Portland schools over 13 years. She also leads creative writing courses for adults at Marylhurst University and Lewis and Clark College, often encouraging her students to interview people at the margins of the city. It’s been a career as entrepreneurial as it is creative, with much of her work as a teacher enabled by her MFA.
“In terms of writing and starting a workshop, it is hugely helpful to have that experience many times over – the experience of reading and giving a good critique to someone and getting feedback and making those alterations in the text. All of that was invaluable for having a writing life, having the potential to publish books,” she said.
On that last front, Moulton said she’s working through the second draft of a novel about undergrads at a religious college, noting, “Motivation is high. Interest is high. Time is very low.”
She’s also been in discussions with a publisher regarding a potential non-fiction project associated with Street Books, and last year she helped organize a group of parents to teach arts and writing at her neighborhood’s school. In what free time she and her author husband Benjamin Parzybok can find, they enjoy cruising Portland’s bike paths with their 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter or rock climbing – another interest Moulton picked up while at EWU.
Street Books entered its third season of operation this spring, following the months-long process of establishing itself as a formal non-profit. Its supporters also held fundraisers with other groups serving the homeless and set up a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $5,000. When it’s not in use, the three-wheeled library bicycle (designed by Moulton’s architect brother) lives in a rented garage populated by pedicabs downtown. Thousands of donated books fill shelves in the basement of a different building nearby, and the mobile librarians fill the bike with about 40 volumes at a time.
“People don’t know what it is. They come up thinking they’re selling ice cream,” said Beth Chapman. Now the non-profit’s board president, she approached Moulton about helping with Street Books after reading a newspaper story soon after the project began. Since then, she’s watched the mobile library grow its community of patrons seeking titles as diverse as Louis L’Amour westerns and a biography of Albert Einstein. Lending the books and talking about them seems a natural outgrowth of Moulton’s personality, as well as her years of listening closely for stories yet to be written.
“She was made for this job. She is approachable, she’s a good listener. She puts people at ease, and she draws them in,” Chapman said. “She provides these people with a lot of dignity and respect. I’m describing something very simple; we’re talking about books and having conversations.”