So it goes.

About four and a half years ago, I had an idea.

The idea was basically to integrate a library model into a bookstore setting, where you would have the option to either borrow or buy everything in the “store”.  Over time, and thanks largely to Houston’s vast food truck collective, I began to imagine such a library/bookstore inside of a bookmobile, free to roam about the city (nay, country), to collaborate with various community leaders, and, obviously, to work alongside Houston’s vast food truck collective.

At an interview for a position as a Young Adult Librarian, well after the part where I realized that “Young Adult” apparently means “middle schooler” in a public library setting, I was asked what type of outreach services I would undertake if hired for the position.  After spouting something about reaching out to local schools blah blah blah, I told my interviewers that what I’d really like to do is drive a bookmobile around and get “Young Adults” interested in library services by bringing the library to “Young Adults”.  One of the interviewers actually laughed at me.  The general response from the room, though I’m not certain it was put in so many words, was a dismissive “Keep dreaming.”

But keep dreaming I did.  I prefer not to think that the BPTL was a direct result of being laughed out of an interview three years ago.  But who knows.  Maybe it was.

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Kelly and I have done a lot of amazing things and connected with a lot of amazing people over the past two years.  Our bookmobile has provided us a creative outlet that our regular jobs have sorely lacked, a means for making meaningful and unique contributions to our community, and a conversation piece (and a space to have those conversations) with every person (and dog) that we have had the privilege of welcoming on board.  It has been an unregrettable and unforgettable chapter in our lives.

But it’s time for us to move on.

A couple of months ago, I put out a feeler on one of our graduate school’s listservs to see if anyone might be interested in taking over the BPTL.  I imagine it would find a great home in Austin among its farmers markets and food parks, I wrote.  Several recipients wrote back in agreement, and one decided she wanted to personally see it come to fruition.

So The Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library has made its last stop in Houston – it’s only fitting to have gone out at an event with ice cream and pizza (from a food truck) and free beer – and, probably, its last stop as “The Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library”.  So it goes.

We’re excited to see what’s in store for the bookmobile in its next iteration, and we hope you will support its new owners with the same gusto that kept us going these past two years.  Their project is currently in its planning stages, but we will keep this post updated as we obtain more information.

If you’re ever (starting, say, in April ’15) in Austin, stop by!  Show them your BPTL library card.  If nothing else, it’ll at least get you a conversation.

Thank you.

–CA Grawl, Traveling Librarian & Young Adult

The Bookmobile as Incubator Space & The Collaborative Economy

Traveling library and bookmobile-for-hire.  That’s how we’ve described ourselves from the start.  But that doesn’t tell the whole story.  Philosophically, we treat the two concepts as equals.  Implementation-wise, one has proven somewhat easier to facilitate than the other.  A more accurate description, at this point, would be “98% traveling library, 2% bookmobile-for-hire.”

In sixteen months, we’ve planned over 100 stops throughout the city as a traveling library, and spent a grand total of 3 days as a bookmobile-for-hire: 2 with the Ector County Library in Odessa, Texas, during which we hosted a series of library card drives throughout the county, and the third during White Linen Night, where we hung some of The Picasso Bus‘ artwork while we had a Picasso painted onto the side of the bookmobile.  And we still had most of our own collection on the truck during White Linen Night.

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Maybe the phrase “bookmobile-for-hire” is offputting?  Maybe most people look at that phrase and think, ‘What would I need with a bookmobile, and why would I pay for it?’

If we were a (true) food truck, we could just say, “We cater!”

In our very first interview, months before we even owned a bookmobile, we were asked to elaborate on our bookmobile-for-hire concept.  The response is fairly long-winded, but it concludes by saying:

While our space is likely most amenable to public libraries, we would be crazy not to make it available to other interested parties (school & academic libraries, museums, artists & art galleries, bookstores, etc.) for pop-up shops & galleries, exhibits, and the like. Part of the appeal of this bookmobile-for-hire model is the potential for the bookmobile to be a sort of incubator space, where individuals and organizations can try out new ideas and new services.

There.  We had it from the very beginning.  The phrase we should have used all along:  incubator space.

As we move into our next phase as The Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library, we hope to more fully embrace this second, de-emphasized component to what we do: the incubator space.  We aspire to provide for libraries and makers something comparable to what Brewery (née Kitchen) Incubator provides for aspiring brewers (and chefs), what our friends in Louisville are doing for printmaking with Calliope Arts, and what our new home, Houston Makerspace is doing for makers et al.

So what will this incubator space look like?  That’s an unanswerable question, since it depends largely on who is utilizing the space.  I suspect, for the most part, it will take one of three overarching forms:

A Library

Obviously, our space is built to house a library.  But that doesn’t mean it has to be our own library.

We’ve showcased our ability to mobilize public libraries and bring their services out into the community by hosting a two-day library card drive last Spring Break for the Ector County Library.  Our experience has been well-documented.  Over time, we hope to work with more public library systems to help them expand their services into their community, particularly to underserved areas.

We are commonly asked at our stops whether we coordinate stops with schools.  And the answer has always been, “We haven’t yet, but we’d like to.”  Our weekends-only schedule hasn’t exactly been school-friendly, but as we expand into weekday hours, we hope to remedy this a bit.  What the space would become would, again, depend on how the school would like to utilize it, but we’ve toyed with the idea of filling the shelves with the school’s library materials a la the Ector County Library model, as well as filling them exclusively with kid- and young adult-oriented donations where everyone who comes on is allowed to take one book home for free.  The latter would require something of a windfall of kid- and young adult-oriented donations, but it’s certainly in the cards.

We’re also very open to working with special libraries, museums, and even bookstores, if they are interested in utilizing our space.

Further down the road, we hope to provide internships for library school students and recent graduates both inside and outside of the makerspace.  One facet of this would be to both literally and figuratively hand our interns the keys to the BPTL and have them build on its foundation however they see fit.

Traveling Library + Boutique

This is, in essence, what we did in collaboration with The Picasso Bus at White Linen Night in the Heights.  While an artist painted Picasso’s Reclining Woman Reading on the side of our truck, we displayed several of The Picasso Bus’ works inside, alongside about 65% of our collection.  Here, we arranged to have a portion of the truck designated to non-library purposes, in a manner that would have made the Library as Incubator Project proud – as a library/art gallery.

We encourage any and all local artists, artisans, and/or craftspersons – particularly those also involved with Houston Makerspace – interested in displaying, selling, and/or loaning their work to please be in touch with us.  We would like our bookmobile to serve as a mobile incubator space (complementary to the makerspace itself) that facilitates getting HMS makers’ work out into the community.  More fashion-oriented makers may want to be in touch with our friends at Urban Izzy.

A “Boutique”

The above proposal can include parts of our library collection, or it can’t.  We can leave all of the shelves in, or we can take them all out.  You can turn our space into a furnished room, an art gallery, an exhibit, a pop-up shop – anything you can put your mind to.

“Boutique,” not unlike “bookmobile-for-hire,” may be a controversial and confusing word choice here, which is why it has quotation marks around it.  The point is, our space is available for library and non-library purposes alike, and we hope for it to be utilized as such.

collaborative economy

Recent studies have shown that there has been tremendous growth in a socioeconomic movement called the Collaborative (or Sharing) Economy.  Wikipedia defines the Collaborative Economy as “a socio-economic system built around the sharing of human and physical assets. It includes the shared creation, production, distribution, trade and consumption of goods and services by different people and organizations.”

Without really knowing there was a name for it, we, along with Kitchen/Brewery Incubator, Houston Makerspace and maker-/hackspaces in general, and Calliope Arts are all willing particpants in the collaborative economy.

Using the chart above, we can see that the traveling library side of our project largely participates through the redistribution of pre-owned goods, loaning materials out, and providing professional and personal library services to the community.

As an incubator space, we’ll offer several other types of collaborative consumption by integrating custom maker goods into our collection, by making our space and our vehicle available as a resource, and, through the makerspace, by expanding our professional services and skills both inside and outside the bookmobile.

Feeling inspired?  Contact us for more information about utilizing our space!

Giving Me Goosebumps (Towards a more fluid library-bookstore)


Early on during day one of the weekend-long Pop Shop Houston, a gentleman whose girlfriend would be working a booth all weekend boarded the bookmobile in search of something to read to help pass the time.  After a minute or so, and to our most pleasant surprise, he walked up to the desk and asked how much the R.L. Stine classic, Goosebumps no. 25:  Attack of the Mutant, would be.  We said, “a dollar?” (our standard price for kids’ paperbacks), he paid, the three of us exchanged some Goosebumps-related pleasantries, and he left.


The next day, he was back again, Attack of the Mutant in tow.  He asked if he could switch it out for something else, and we complied.  After a minute or so, following a brief conversation about how underwhelming and unscary Attack of the Mutant had been, he presented us with his Sunday read: the R.L. Stine classic, Goosebumps no. 3: Monster Blood.  We noted it, exchanged some pleasantries, and he left.

Thinking back, I realized that this was the first time that this had ever happened –  where someone returned with a book they had bought (as opposed to borrowed) and exchanged it for something new.  While a bartering system is fundamental to our library model, it had previously only come in the forms of price negotiations and trades/discounted membership for new donations.

Everything you see on our truck – all of the books, CDs, and movies – can either be bought or borrowed.  We have always operated as a hybrid library/bookstore, encouraging it to be used as a library (with no due dates and no late fees), but accepting that a bookstore may be more practical for some.  On the bookstore side, we ask that you barter with us.  The most common form this takes is American dollars for books, but that is by no means the only currency we accept.  For instance, it’s snow cone season.

Library membership at the BPTL ($5-$20/year for 1-5 items out at a time) is set up in such a way that you may, without consequence, opt to never return the items you check out, effectively using our collection as a bookstore.  What’s been missing is the opposite – using our collection as a bookstore to start, then having an opportunity to use it as a library at no added cost, even if the initial cost was a snow cone.

So, without further ado, we would like to announce a new policy to change that:

Any* item obtained from our collection may be returned and exchanged one-for-one for any other item in our collection at no added cost.

(*We do reserve the right to claim dupage.  Examples of dupage include (1) returning noticeably damaged materials, (2) purchasing a paperback for $2 and immediately trying to exchange it for a 1,000-page hardback, and, obviously, (3) theft.)

Hopefully this will provide further incentive (aside from the collection itself) for folks who have used us as a bookstore to come back, and an option for everyone to experience us as a library or a bookstore every time they climb aboard, rather than feeling they have to commit one way or the other from the get-go.  And in effect, the BPTL will transform into an even more fluid library-bookstore.

So, to the gentleman we only really know as “Goosebumps guy”:  feel free to bring Monster Blood back whenever you want.  We’ve got Goosebumps no. 18: Monster Blood II calling your name.

One Year On: Our First Year as The Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library

Has it really been a year?


Logically, I understand why a year feels shorter with each successive year you experience.  As an example, if I had started running a bookmobile when I was four years old (you know, as an example), the first year of bookmobiling would have been 1/5 of my life, which is a lot more than 1/28 of one’s life.

But really?  A year?

I can’t say it wasn’t an accomplished year.

We nearly crossed the two-century mark in terms of members.  We’ve circulated over 350 of our near-2,000-item collection of books, CDs, DVDs, and audiobooks, largely comprised of community donations, with 260 items currently checked out.  We’ve netted over $1,000 from the sales of over 200 items, and given away hundreds of other books, magazines, CDs, audiobooks, zines, and stickers for free, in our free bin, in tandem with Urban Harvest‘s Children’s Gardening Series, and otherwise.

We’ve scoured the web and curated an ever-growing list of over 250 free electronic resources, filled with readily accessible goodies in literature, art, music, and film, among other things.

We’ve amassed a respectable number of followers through our various social media outlets, and, despite ourselves, have garnered a considerable amount of press coverage.

We’ve traveled to Odessa, Texas to hold a two-day, city-wide library card drive for the Ector County Library (something we’d like to do more often, just maybe not 500 miles away).

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We got a makeover at White Linen Night in the Heights, thanks to Clear and our friends at The Picasso Bus.

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We’ve coordinated over 80 stops at various locations throughout the city and worked with a variety of local businesses and markets, including Style Cycle, Boomtown Coffee, MAM’s House of Ice, UP Art Studio, Urban Harvest, the H-E-B Montrose Market, Pop Shop Houston, Houston Re-Market, The Lone Star Bazaar, ECO-Market, Project Row Houses, Taft St. Coffee, Te House of Tea, Zine Fest Houston, Spring Street Studios, Wabash Antiques and Feed, Indie Book Fest, First Saturday Arts Market, Happy Fatz, Liberty Station, Houston Food Park, Montrose Food Park, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and, more recently, Good Dog Houston, Houston Makerspace, and Fat Cat Creamery.

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All in the name of literacy and entertainment, of information and culture.

We couldn’t have done any of this without such a welcoming and inviting community.  We asked our members and social media followers whether they’d like to contribute a quote to include in this post, and received several humbling responses.  “I’m so in awe of this sweet couple and the BPTL,” one read.  “Their dedication and devotion to reading materials, their efforts and kindness of giving the gift of reading to many, renews my faith in all things Good. May the Beauty of Books live long and long travel with Chris and Kelly.”  One of our regulars wrote, “The Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library has provided Houston with an indispensable model of how libraries can operate. All my life I have had my library experience come up short because of late fees! Thank you both for your passion and consistency in providing great books, movies, and tunes for cheap. Thank you and keep up the great work!”   A third contributor “remember[s] buying some awesome Neil Young and Nick Drake CDs from [our] killer used CD collection.”  It’s nice to know that we’ve had such a positive impact on the lives of other members of our community, and that other folks think that we have a killer CD collection.

So yeah, it’s been a good year, if an impossibly fast one.

What’s in store for year two of the BPTL?  Well, that’s all still taking shape.

We hope to forge new partnerships with more local businesses and locations throughout the city, inner and outer loop.  We’ve already planned upcoming stops at Mangum Food Park and Watershed Market, for instance.  We’d like to partner with other libraries, schools, artists and the like to repurpose our truck towards others’ goals, like we did with the Ector County Library.  We’d like to put more books and CDs and DVDs in more people’s hands, to see return customers more often, and to generally increase our outreach – to host more programs and to be open more hours, and more days.

I can happily report that the good folks at Houston Makerspace are going to help make that happen.

Houston Makerspace is in the process of building out a warehouse in EaDo and installing various shops and workspaces that makers will be able to utilize for years to come.  But somewhere in that space will be a publicly accessible library that will in due time serve as a home branch for the BPTL.

We’ll still regularly make stops in the bookmobile, of course.  All said and done, we’ll try to be open to the public between 5 and 7 days a week.  Having a library branch at HMS will give us a stationary space where the public knows to find us, a wider berth of hours to visit us,  a home for the (not quite literal) ton of donated books and CDs that aren’t currently on the truck, and an opportunity to expand our services to include internship/capstone/volunteer opportunities, classes, book clubs, movie nights, author readings, and other programming that’d be difficult to hold inside of a bookmobile.  And it’ll give us a chance to take a weekend off once in a while without feeling guilty that our members aren’t getting their money’s worth.

It’s definitely a work in progress, and it’s going to take a lot of work to get there, but we’re excited to see what year two has in store for us.  We hope that you are as well.