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Bookleggers Library. Promoting encounters with books in the streets of Miami

A mobile, indie, community library that pops-up in the most unexpected places around the city

Searching for events that stand out in the Miami´s cultural scene we came across Bookleggers Library, a title which could translate as Biblioteca de contrabandistas or traficantes de libros. It´s an indie, community mobile library that pops-up once a month and gives away free books to the public.  The somewhat cryptic and mysterious name immediately caught my imagination and prompted me to investigate the activity further, so I contacted Nathaniel Sandler, creator, and generator of this idea.

Bookleggers is not just about books and literature. It´s about the people who come together to celebrate books and literature in Miami.  Nate is committed to building Miami’s literary community further by bringing literature to more Miamians, collecting and re-distributing used books, giving them a second chance in life so that others may read them.  They hold monthly events that take place in the most unusual places –public parks, art galleries, museums, bars, and schools, where they give away books to the attendees.  . In addition, they install book boxes and libraries throughout South Florida, both on the street and in places such as hospitals and shelters for the homeless or victims of abuse or mistreatment.

Strictly speaking, Bookleggers is a kind of fusion between library and second-hand bookstore. During their events, they give away books but also trade books or sell them at a very reasonable price. In the style of a true librarian, Nathaniel enjoys recommending and commenting with attendees, and stamps each book that comes out with the EX LIBRIS BOOKLEGGERS LIBRARY seal, just like in a real library.

Bookleggers was a winner of the Knight Arts Challenge and FEAST Miami in 2015. Both Bookleggers and Nathaniel Sandler are currently sponsored by the Knight Foundation.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.

I’m a writer and, in addition to running Bookleggers Library, I work with museum collections. I write for the Vizcaya Museum, the Special Collections section of the University of Miami, and the Frost Science Museum. I do what I have called collections writing (escritos sobre colecciones), about the art that is in the back ends of collections. Nearly 95% of the world’s works of art found in museums are not exhibited. At any given time, only about 5% of the world’s art is on display and visible to visitors, so what I do is visit what we might call the back rooms of museums to find these works of art and tell stories about them. I recently received a grant from the Knight Foundation that will allow me to continue and expand the reach to more museums. That as for the professional part.

As a person, I am a Miami native, I was born, raised, and have spent most of my life here in Miami, although I don´t speak Spanish.  After high school I went to college in Upstate New York in a place called Vassar College, a small liberal arts school about two hours north of New York City, and then traveled to Hakui, Japan with the JET Program (Japan Exchange and Teaching Program) to teach English in high school. I spent two years there and then about six months or so traveling the world, before returning to Miami.

Bookleggers is a library in the sense that you can come and take a book for free and it is also a used bookstore in the sense that if you want to take multiple books we sell them to you at a very reasonable rate.

So, in a city where such a large part of the population speaks Spanish, you, on the other hand, speak Japanese!

I got a degree in East Asian Studies; I studied the language and art of the Asia Pacific region. I cannot really explain why I studied that, liberal arts. I wanted to travel, learn a different language, a different culture; that is what I did, and that is how I ended up living in Japan. I studied Japanese in college for four years and then lived there for two years, so I studied Japanese for six years and when I left I was conversational in Japanese. At this point not so much, it´s been a long time and I don´t study it anymore, so it sorts of evaporated from my brain I guess, unfortunately.

When I returned to Miami after touring the world I did manufacturing for a few years, then I did some trading, I would go to factories in China and sell the goods to America. But it just was not for me, so five years ago I decided to devout myself seriously to writing and that’s when I started Bookleggers Library as well, alongside my writing career. I have always written, but making money doing it is something very recent, a few years ago.

What is behind the creation of the Bookleggers Library?
I’ve always been a reader and loved books.  As a young person I spent time in bookstores and libraries a lot. It has been a while since bookstores, particularly in Miami but in fact across the country, are disappearing and it is increasingly difficult for booksellers to exist.  People like to blame the internet, but that is not entirely true. It is mostly because the business model no longer works that it´s difficult to sell books and because real estate has become so expensive, it is difficult for book sellers to pay the rent. But also, libraries are increasingly under threats; I like to use the phrase the war on libraries, which is a little over-dramatic, but it is true. Due to budgetary cuts and politicians looking for any excuse to ditch the funds, libraries are constantly being threatened by fiscal conservative governments. So, with bookstores shutting down and libraries under threat, I tried to sort of create a model that functions as both a library and a used bookstore. Bookleggers is a library in the sense that you can come and take a book for free and it is also a used bookstore in the sense that if you want to take multiple books we sell them to you at a very reasonable rate.

To me booklegging evokes something kind of underground, something illegal. Like bootlegging. What´s really behind your name, where did it come from?

The name was my idea but the concept of booklegging is an historical concept. It refers to something that´s done illegally.  It´s a word that´s been used to refer mostly to smut, erotica, pornography, or illegal, banned books.  It has roots in the 20s in the traffic or distribution of prohibited or illegal printed material either across or within a country, an activity that was very common especially from Cuba

We can do it anywhere from a park, a museum, a bar, a cafe we have done it in many unexpected and strange places.

where erotic or pornographic material was printed, that was smuggled into Florida and distributed from there to the rest of the United States. Basically, booklegging was the either illicit or illegal printing or distribution of banned books, so technically Thomas Paine, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, who authored the two most powerful and influential pamphlets of the American Revolution, Common Sense and The American Crisis,  was a booklegger.

Although very few people know or use this word, there are books on this subject, and there are even literary examples; the most famous is Guy Montag, the main character of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, who hides books from the fires of totalitarian oppression.

Do you believe that books and reading are an endangered species?
No, I don´t think that reading is going anywhere.  People are reading more than ever because of the internet, right? That is the way we consume information today. But the way we buy, sell, and consume books is changing, and although it is partly due to the Internet, there are other reasons. Take a book like Harry Potter, or The DaVinci Code or Fifty Shades of Gray, of which about 15 million copies are printed. We do not need 15 million copies of those books because you can read them and give them to someone else, a function that Bookleggers Library performs. But also, quite frankly, it´s wasteful, it´s not sustainable, we´re wasting a lot of paper.  So, cutting back on the number of mass-produced paperbacks is actually a good thing. And there´s another thing.  When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, we didn´t stop using candles, ok? I think some people will always need books but when I see so many books, I realize there are many that we just don’t need.

What would you like our readers to know about Bookleggers Library?
We started in 2012 at a place called Lester’s, a coffee shop in Wynwood that played a huge role in the Miami literary scene but no longer exists. Our first event was what we call in English DIY, do it yourself and, at first, the books were all in my apartment.

The organization functions in two ways. We do these events once a month, like a party with free access to books and we can “show up” anywhere from a park a museum a bar a cafe we’ve done it in the Planetarium at the Science Museum, in the Everglades, in Key Biscayne, we’ve done it in many unexpected and strange places. The event has to be fun and interesting, we always have the books and there has to be something else that attracts and keeps people there, right ?, and that’s why we often do events in a bar, where there is food and drink, or It can be music, a band, a concert. We always have books and something else. It’s not just about the books, it’s about the community. Last month, for instance, we were at the Frost Museum of Science for 5 hours and we gave away only science books to the families and the people that came to visit the museum.  On November 10th, in the evening, we´ll be at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens and we will be giving away books. There is going to be a nice bar and some music and you´ll get to go to Vizcaya at night, it’s beautiful, and actually I finagled a deal where I get 150 free tickets to Vizcaya. We always want the access for the library to be free, we try to do it in places where it’s free and if we do charge it´s usually just fundraising for the organization or for some other cause. At our events everybody gets one book for free; if you want to trade we take trades, a book for a book straight up and then we will sell you another book past your first free book for $2.

The other thing that we do is build libraries for businesses, for institutions, for nonprofit organizations and we also build libraries on the street, we call them book boxes, that are there for 24 hours a day free books and I fill them up depending on where it is quite often. Our crown jewel Bookbox is on NW 2nd Ave on the side of Gallery Diet, which goes through approximately three linear feet of books every two days. We have libraries at Lotus House (a homeless women’s center) and at the Holtz Children’s Hospital, a Reading Room at the ArtCenter South

The event has to be fun and interesting, we always have the books and there has to be something else that attracts and keeps people there, right ?, and that’s why we often do events in a bar, where there is food and drinks, or It can be music, a band, a concert. We always have books and something else. It’s not just about the books, it’s about the community.

Florida, a Paperback Swap at the Freehand Miami, as well as a Floridiana Outpost in the Everglades National Park through AIRIE (Artist in Residence in Everglades Program). They are semi-permanent libraries.

What do you mean by semi-permanent libraries?
We call them semi-permanent libraries because there’s no such thing as a permanent library. Look, the greatest library that ever existed is the Library of Alexandria and it´s no longer with us. It´s been rebuilt, but it´s not the same library, you know? I can´t remember who said it but there’s a quote that I always refer to go, back to,  “libraries have a curious habit of being destroyed”, the most recent famous example being 2003 when the American invading forces completely obliterated the Library of Baghdad, which was thousands of years old and they just like pfff! So we never call a library permanent, that´s just like the Titanic was unsinkable.


Do you have any idea of how many books do you have, any other language besides Spanish?
We do not really count. The collection shuffles so much that there is no real way to do that.  We don´t catalogue them either, we keep them in plastic tubs and label them to try and keep them organized, we have a list of subjects, and we keep to the sign, there´s art, books in Spanish, poetry, children’s, like different subjects and then we theme events based on that. All the children´s books we get they go to the Holtz Children’s Hospital and they go in a fleet of book carts. So when I tell you that we do outreach work or we help underserved communities that’s one of the projects, we have a library at the Lotus House homeless shelter and we have this library, it´s not really a library, it´s more like a book program at the Children’s Hospital.

We are trying to build a Haitian Creole collection, but it is not really going that well.  I’ve had books come through that are in a bunch of different languages but… the answer to that is no, it’s too much.  Because Miami has such a huge Spanish speaking population it makes sense for me to keep those to the side for an event, but like for instance to think of events in French or something like that doesn’t make any sense.

Among the books that you receive as donations, have you ever received a very rare book? What would you do if you get one of these books that you say like, wow, how did I ever come across this one?
Yes, some of the books that come in are quite valuable and it’s actually ethically a little bit strange to give away a very valuable book, because you may be giving it to someone who doesn’t understand the worth or the value of it, so we also do events where we sell nicer books.

We have received a couple very impressive books. We had a Borges first edition printed in Argentina,  The little prince first edition, we had a true first of The old man and the sea by Ernest Hemingway some really nice stuff and to be quite honest I have probably missed some of it too because we turn the books out so quickly it ends up is it called when there so many books coming in and so many going out and we’re trying to be more mindful of the very rare books, it´s difficult, it´s very difficult I’m not a book seller so we are trying to figure out a way to do that better and quite frankly I don’t it’s an issue of time, if you see a book you don’t know if it’s valuable unless you do the research and if you’re getting thousands of books in and thousands of books out all the time it’s hard to do the research on every single one.

Just one last question, why do you do what you do?

I guess the short answer is I wanted to build a library the long answer is because… I do not know how to say this without sounding terrible… I am a literary person this is a literary life, and that’s the truth

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