CAMDEN, NJ — Tom Martin hasn’t been relegated to his Haddon Township home during a global pandemic in the year 2020. He’s been in Seattle circa 1992 alongside Jon Dorenbos — an NFL long-snapper who would turn tragedy into a “magical” life journey.
Such is the escapism that Martin, founder of non-profit Camden County Pop-Up Library, wants to help his community access during the challenging times brought on by COVID-19.
Martin, a sport’s junkie who can’t flip the channels for a live game, is instead parked at home with a sandwich and a good sports book. As of late, that’s been Dorenbos’ “Life is Magic” and Tyler Kepner’s “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches.”
He's also been out and about spreading literary joy one novel at a time.
“Once you get inside a good book, an hour, two hours just flies by,” Martin told TAPinto Camden. “Watching the news, especially now, can make you crazy and stoke fear. A book can be like a mini-vacation from that.”
Martin said he’s been able to continue distributing the monthly one thousand books he’s typically able to with help from fellow bookworm and BookSmiles founder Larry Abrams — who helps with children and teen offerings.
Ordinarily, Martin — who founded the non-profit three years ago — would be hard not to spot outside Camden ministries, the Walter Rand Transportation Center, the Cathedral Kitchen, and elsewhere in the city. A table before him and books sprawled out for the taking.
But because of the outbreak, he said he’s mostly making deliveries based on house calls - reaching out to the school district and local organizations to remind them that free books are available.
“I want people in the city to know I’m here during the crisis to deliver them books. I know the libraries are closed so I’m doing what I can on my part... my storage locker is full and there’s so much I have available,” he said.
Martin hasn’t been alone in his mission.
Subaru and The Rotary helped by providing a car to take his services on the road.
West Berlin publishing company, Townsend Press, also funds over a dozen “Book Arks.”
The nifty storage cabinets are sprinkled throughout Camden (locations outlined below) to offer passerby or neighbors a good new read to dive into.
Jacqueline Santiago, who manages two book arks in the north part of Camden, lived for a few years in Schaumburg, Chicago - home of the second-largest library in Illinois.
“Compared to there when I came back to Camden the availability of books was a culture shock, and that’s especially true now during the pandemic,” said Santiago, who previously had cancer and has had to take additional safeguards.
She said so far the arks have been successful, and she’s open to making deliveries as well, which residents in North Camden can place by contacting her community garden’s Facebook page.
Endrix Afanador, 32, said when he first heard of the Books Arks he harkened back to a trip to Baltimore.
“They had a community space where anyone was welcome to grab as many books as they wanted and it was all free. Suffice to say, I walked away with a box full of books to take home. I remember thinking to myself, I wish we had something like this back home in Camden,” said Afanador, who was born and raised in the city. “So when I saw that Tom was creating something similar here in Camden, I decided to get involved.”
Afanador’s Book Ark is located at 34th and Westfield Avenue — which he runs with sister Yeidy Afanador, nephews David McIntyre and William McIntyre and his dog Max, the “Book Ark mascot.”
Afandaor said he was conscious that some would think the ark wouldn’t “latch on” because of preconceived notions.
He said he’s seen every kind of reader mosey over for their next new story.
“There's a stigma attached to places like Camden that folks in the hood don't read. This experience validated that you can't judge a book by its cover,” he said. “So I've seen a great deal of positivity and kindness come as a result of the book ark as well. It has so much more value than just books in my opinion.”
All genres are available, Martin said, including biographies, fantasy, sports, classic novels, young adult, sports, and books in Spanish too.
“All they need is to contact me with what type of books they need and the age range. I’ll have a box of books for them in no time,” Martin added. “When I’m on the street, someone who may not even know they need a book could walk up out of curiosity. The amount of books I’ve been able to give away has been similar but not to such a wide range of people. I hope it changes.”
Book Arks in the city of Camden are also available at the following locations: T.I.’s Next Level Barbershop, 914 Haddon Ave., 629 York St. Miguel’s Pharmacy, Von Neida Park, 3rd and Byron, Pine Poynt Park, 519 Randolph St., Ferry Avenue Library, Slice of NY Pizza, North 6th and Grant St. and the Nick Virgilio Writers House.
To access free books email Tom Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (856) 308-6992. Visit the pop-up library’s website at camdencountypopuplibrary.org.