If your soul is feeling like a frozen sea within you, Franz Kafka would recommend you read a book to serve as an axe for the ice — and Eugene-based nonprofit Books to the People wants to be there with a carefully selected collection of axes for you to choose from at no cost to you.
Ezra Tishman and his team of dedicated volunteers are on a mission to bring free books to people on wheels via “Gertie,” a 29-foot long book bus. Wandering Lane County, Books to the People frequently visits rural towns such as Monroe and Veneta, is a regular in the Whiteaker neighborhood on last Fridays of the month and had a weekly presence at Eugene’s Kesey Square on Wednesdays in October by invitation from the city. Books to the People will be fundraising at Cozmic on Nov. 17.
“Gertie” is named as such “not because we like to name our vehicles after beautiful women,” says Books to the People founder and director Tishman on a damp Wednesday afternoon at Kesey Square, “but because the bus is a Gerstenslager library bookmobile” he says with an exaggerated German accent. Tishman looks every bit the aficionado in a black beret, small spectacles and a T-shirt that reads “I can’t live without my books.”
Why free books? Why not is more like it. “I remember a day back in 1970; I was working at Harvard University and I took all the books I had and went out on the street with a taxi horn and I stood there without saying any words and just honked and gave them away to people. I got such a thrill out of that, that was 40 years ago.”
Tishman and his wife, a UO literature professor, purchased the bus in 2007 and began selling discount books out of it. A book dealer by profession, Tishman says he realized he could still operate his private book business while also serving a community need, so he donated 9,000 books to get started. “At a certain point, I wanted to do this nonprofit … you know how they say ‘be the change you want to see?’ I remembered that this is like doing your part, a lot of times books are too expensive for the people who really need them.”
At 62, Tishman exudes a youthful enthusiasm. “I consider books to be portals. Portals to parallel universes, portals to possibility — you can change your life by taking in a book.” He says as he shuffles among the shelves that line the interior of the bus, rearranging and organizing books with a focused quickness. A few people browse the shelves and chat amongst themselves as Johnny Cash plays in the background.
“The majority of books here are ones that you can really sink your soul into,” says Tishman as he wanders over to the classics section: Ivan Turgenev, Herman Melville, Margaret Mead. Books should be available to everyone, he thinks, regardless of their circumstances: “They’re not necessarily limited to people who are economically poor, because sometimes we’re idea poor at the same time, right — and we’re inspiration poor. So the people that really need them are anybody that feels stuck.”
Books to the People received its official nonprofit status in August of this year, has an active board of directors and is seeking new volunteers to expand capacity. “We really need a social network coordinator, a webmaster; we need volunteers for this organization,” Tishman says.
As the nonprofit grows, it is rumored that Gertie’s girth may be too large for Kesey Square, but Tishman says that they really like it there and is optimistic that a good relationship with the city will lead to a good outcome, whether at Kesey Square or elsewhere downtown.
Books to the People will hold its second annual fundraising event at 6 pm Nov. 18 at Cozmic that will feature local bands Mood Area 52 and Tara Stonecipher and the Tall Grass. There will also be a silent auction featuring items including a signed and framed poem by Wendell Berry. Tickets will be sold at the door on a sliding scale ranging from $15-$25 by donation. For more information about Gertie the book bus, her whereabouts and how to get involved check out bookstothepeople.org