CAMDEN, NJ—One of the last places you would expect to find a library is on the sidewalk outside of a methadone clinic. On the corner of 5th and Market streets in Camden, there’s one every Tuesday.
It’s relatively small — made of a folding table and four of five plastic bins of books — but that’s on purpose. The Camden County Pop Up Library is meant to be able to fit into the back of Tom Martin’s Toyota sedan.
Since January of 2017, Martin has been popping up at different spots in Camden for about one hour offering anybody that passes by to take as many books as they please — for free and with no requirement to return them. An avid news reader, Martin, who grew up in Cherry Hill, said that he was tired of reading negative headlines and wanted to bring something positive into the world.
“I always loved the idea of a mobile library,” Martin, a former stockbroker turned recruiter said.
So, he began to go around and ask for donated books, and over the span of a year-and-a-half, he’s been able to collect enough books from individuals, nonprofits and corporations to fill a storage unit — literally.
“I have a 10 x 20 storage unit that is packed,” said Martin. "I have thousands of books."
This summer, he and volunteer Vanessa Fiore have set up shop every Tuesday outside of the methadone clinic on 5th and Market streets, weather permitting. On Wednesdays, you can find the CCPUL outside the Virtua Hospital’s Farmers Market. Martin also regularly sets up outside of the CVS on Mickle Boulevard, the Volunteers of America Homeless Shelter on Atlantic Avenue, Cathedral Kitchen on Federal Street and the Neighborhood Center on Kaighns Avenue.
Fiore, a former paralegal, began volunteering with Martin this June after being introduced to Martin by a mutual friend.
“I care highly about people who are homeless,” Fiore said. “And I’m a writer, so I like reading, writing and the location of where it is brings everything together that I care about. I was like this is perfect.”
CCPUL regular Darrell Smith, holding a Star Wars book he just picked up from the bin children’s books, said he makes it a point to come by every Tuesday.
“My whole bookshelf is filled with their books,” Smith said. “Because I like what they got and I read good things. These are my people.”
The bins contain fiction, non-fiction, spiritual and children’s books. Tuesday’s selection included the works of authors like P.G. Wodehouse, David Baldacci and Eckhart Tolle. One regular returned as soon as Martin set up on Tuesday to return books she had previously taken, and brief reviews inside on the title pages.
“She goes right here to the methadone clinic, which means you can’t judge books by their cover,” Martin said. Inside of a Chinese version of Cinderella, the woman gave it a three out of five. She scored “The Secret Life of Bees” a five out of five.
For Martin, its interactions like these that make it worth all the effort.
“The thing I really get a kick out of is that people appreciate the fact that we respect them. You don’t assume that because they’re drug-addicted, that they’re stupid,” Martin said. “They don’t ever say that, but you can tell that’s what they’re feeling. It’s so rewarding to get that feedback.”
Eventually, Martin would like to upgrade the nonprofit pop-up library from a Toyota to van, and from the sidewalk to an actual storefront.
“What I would like to do is a get a building where people deliver books in the back, so we can sort them and then set up a library up front — a giving library,” Martin said.
However for now, he said he is focusing on finding donations and learning how to find grant funding to make that dream a reality. And, of course, popping up at an hour at a time on Camden's streets.
"If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it. I do it for these people, but I also do it for me," Martin said. "Sometimes I'm tired and don’t feel like going to storage and getting the books, that can be a pain in the ass. But the minute we set up, book review Danielle is here and boom ... its a real buzz and you don’t think of anything else."