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Interview: The Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library

Interview: The Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library
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By Amanda Hart
Photo courtesy of Chris Grawl & Kelly Allen

Houston now has its very own traveling library. When we saw The Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library at the most recent Lone Star Bazaar we figured it was deserving of an interview. FPH caught up with creators Chris and Kelly to learn more about their book-peddling bus.

Who is Billy Pilgrim and where did he get the idea to create a traveling library?

Knowing who Billy Pilgrim is has sort of implicitly become part of the initiation process at the BPTL.  Some come to our library with that knowledge intact.  Others address one or both of us as Billy or flatly ask, as you have, “Who’s Billy Pilgrim?”  And we, Chris and Kelly, are happy to oblige.

Billy Pilgrim, we say, is the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.

Naming our bookmobile after a Vonnegut character speaks to both the character of our traveling collection as well as to our individual characters.  We also like the sort of play on words with being a traveling library and Billy Pilgrim traveling through, or coming “unstuck in time,” as well as the notion that literature, film, and music do unstick us in time.

Our idea for a traveling library resulted from your run-of-the-mill combination of library entrepreneurialism and food truck love.  Chris initially visualized it inside a storefront, but when we moved to Montrose and began subsisting on food truck cuisine, it became clear to both of us that our project would best be realized as a mobile venture.

What exactly is a traveling library? Where does it go and who does it serve?

A traveling library, historically, has meant anything from boxes of books that were shipped from rural area to rural area to bookmobiles full of resources that travel to locations without libraries.  Our traveling library draws from bookmobile history while offering something completely innovative.  And we do this in a couple of ways.

The Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library is primarily an independent, Houston-based bookmobile stocked with a collection of literature, music, and film drawn from our own shelves and from generous community donations.  We call ourselves “your bookmobile” because we serve everyone and because our collection is comprised of materials contributed by the library’s members.

In principle, the BPTL is a fusion library/bookstore, with a business model somewhere along the lines of Netflix’s.  You join by paying an annual membership fee that ranges from $5 to $20 and, depending on your plan, allows you to have from one to five items out at a time. There are no due dates or late fees.  Bring your items back when you want and exchange them for something else.

The natural (and consistent) question that follows is, “How do I know where to find you?”  We try to be transparent about where and when we park on our Twitter (@theBPTL) and Facebook (fb.me/theBPTL) pages, and we have an up-to-date events calendar on our website (theBPTL.com/events).

We’re only a few months into this project, and so we’re still looking for some more places to park regularly.  And due to other commitments, we are a largely weekend-based enterprise.  Our most consistent stop so far has been Sunday afternoons at Style Cycle, next to Boomtown Coffee on 19th Street in the Heights.  We are one of very few libraries serving the Greater Houston area that is open on Sundays, so we’re thrilled to have established a partnership with Style Cycle that allows us to consistently offer the community Sunday service.  We’ve also been making the rounds at several of the monthly arts markets - Houston Re-Market, Lone Star Bazaar, Folk Market, First Saturday Arts Market, Grey Area Art Market - and hope to continue to contribute to that circuit.  Many of our stops so far have been in Montrose and the Heights, but we hope to work with local organizations and help serve communities all over Greater Houston and beyond.

The secondary purpose of the BPTL is to serve as a bookmobile-for-hire - that is, we empty out the truck’s space and make it available to other interested parties (public libraries, museums, art galleries, schools, local businesses) for whatever (mutually agreeable) purposes (library card drive, pop-up gallery, exhibit).  We debuted this component of our services during spring break in Odessa, where we helped the Ector County Library celebrate their 75th anniversary via library card drives at two county senior centers, Family Art Day at the Noel Art Museum, and H-E-B.  We’d love to similarly serve Houston by teaming up with Harris County Public Library and/or Houston Public Library, letting them fill our shelves with their materials and going out into the community rather than waiting for the community to go to it.

What help or support do you currently need from the community?

The support we have received from the community to this point has been tremendous and extremely encouraging.  From the very start, we had friends, family, community members, and total strangers signing up to be library members, making donations (both monetary and in-kind), and suggesting other places to park and other events and organizations with whom to collaborate. Since we began in mid-February, our project has evolved in a very natural and community-driven manner, both in terms of the breadth of our collection, as well as the array of events we attend and groups we work with.  We’d like to see this stay the course and continue to evolve naturally.

There are a couple of easy ways to support us without having to physically seek us out.  Monetary contributions can be sent to theBPTL@gmail.com through PayPal, which we have a link to on our website, theBPTL.com.  We’ve also set up a registry on Amazon where you can purchase an item on our wish list and have it sent directly to us.  You can find a link to the registry on our webpage as well.

But most of all, if you like what we’re doing, help spread the word about us!

If people wanted to contact you for an event or to volunteer, how would they go about doing so?

Anyone interested in collaborating with us in any way - using our space, having us attend an event, volunteering/interning, etc. - can feel free to shoot us an email at theBPTL@gmail.com.  Any time we’re open to the public should also be considered our office hours.  Please feel free to stop by, even if you just want to chat or simply see the inside of a bookmobile.