A few days before Halloween, the front door of Laurence Copel’s double bungalow in the 9th Ward bore a sign that read: “Street Library at 3:00 today.”
It was handwritten on orange paper along with a hand-drawn pumpkin. Inside, The Book Lady, the nickname bestowed on Copel by neighborhood children, sat reading a book about a ladybug to 3-year-old Iyinnia Amore. The story was part book and part puppet show, via a black felt finger puppet embedded in the text.
It was a slow day for the 9th Ninth Ward Street Library (5445 Douglass St.), operated by Copel since 2013 when she bought the house. Only Iyinnia and her sister Jhana visited Copel’s library, but Copel says other Saturdays, when it’s usually open 1-3 p.m., bring more than a dozen children. Many ride their bicycles from several blocks away. Copel sends them home with a book from an ever-evolving collection of 5,000 children’s books.
The red one-room library of about 120 square feet holds a chair, a plaid sofa and two wall units of coloring and regular books. Cardboard shipping boxes of unpacked books line one wall and another one sits on the porch. The collection grows via donors who share Copel’s view that early reading habits provide a pathway for productive lives for at-risk children.
When the house library isn’t open, book-hunting children can browse the titles in the always-open little library out front, which carries such classics as Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. The books come and then they go. Wall art inside the house library carries the library’s central philosophy: “Read a Book, Pass It On.”
“We have the dubious distinction of being the incarceration capital of the world,” Copel says. “I just thought maybe giving books away to children early would be a way to keep them out of jail.”
During the many years of her career as a professional librarian, Copel says she repeatedly heard from struggling teenagers that books were absent from their homes and that they never had been read to as children.
She has been trying to rectify that lack of home-based learning for years. For much of a decade, she was an outreach librarian for the lofty New York Public Library. But when that position ended and she got stuck in a library desk job, she decided to move to New Orleans and start over. Before long, her passion for distributing books took a personal, out-on-the road path. The usual quiet environment of impersonal library buildings and metal book racks shifted to a tiny apartment in the Holy Cross section of the 9th Ward, and a spot in a community garden where she read to the neighborhood kids surrounded by the varying growing stages of nutritious plants.
Soon she had found a part-time librarian position at a West Bank school and started her own grassroots outreach program.
When she wasn’t pedaling a bicycle to the ferry to get to the West Bank, she was expanding her literacy ideals. A program called Books to Kids donated books on the condition she gave them away to the children, a no-brainer for a woman who promotes book love.
To expand her reach, she began carrying books by bicycle to nearby neighborhoods. Later, she bought a sturdy three-wheeler bicycle that allowed her to carry an entire tray of books to children further afield.
She developed “legs of steel,” she says, and the whole adventure brought her a 2014 Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity. The $3,000 prize sponsored by children’s author Daniel Handler and the American Library Association also brought media exposure and more donations.
At one point, a donor gave her a Mercedes-Benz van to develop a roomier traveling library. Artist friends painted it with folksy images of children reading books and her son brushed on her own image. It was called the NOLA Book Bus.
For a while she had a bus, but no driver’s license. She had to learn to drive. She was so roundly identified by it in the neighborhood that the bus “had become my alter ego,” Copel says.
The next step was to install a sound system to announce the van’s arrival like an old-style ice-cream truck, but that never came about. The key broke and the cost of towing it to a Baton Rouge Mercedes-Benz dealer for a high-tech repair proved too expensive. She traded it for a conventional Toyota SUV, which gets her to a new, paid, full-time outreach librarian position at Kingsley House, but it doesn’t deliver books to children with the same flair.
While pondering how to get back on the road in kid-friendly style, Copel ran across internet images of an Italian bookmobile powered by a motored three-wheeler. Inspired, she found a similar vehicle in Arizona, which she got for free and transported to her driveway. Now it’s parked in front of the wooden, six-shelved float that carries books in a street parade she produces every year.
The loss of the book bus slowed down her giveaway programs this year, she says, but as soon as she gets the money to spruce up the three-wheeler, the library will be on the road again.
The van’s breakdown came at a difficult time for Copel. She says she suffered a string of personal tragedies this year, including the death of her mother. “I’m so sad,” she says, “a year of death. It was just too much.”