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Wednesday, August 30, 2000

A Novel Idea: Small Tenderloin Organization Brings its Books to the Streets
Library on Wheels Brings Books to Homeless People

- Mark Martin, Chronicle Staff Writer

San Francisco -- Herman Taft is a sucker for a good love story.

``Even cynics like me need a romance every now and then,'' said the 6-foot- 3-inch Taft, his deep voice booming through the lobby of the Jefferson Hotel in San Francisco's Tenderloin.

After a few minutes of browsing, the 41-year-old Taft plucked ``Baby Bonus,'' a well-used paperback Harlequin romance, from a shopping cart piled high with books. Promising passion, jealousy and a surprise ending, the novel was Taft's choice to while away the afternoon.

``For a few hours I can forget that I'm living on a crummy street in a crummy part of town,'' he said.

A new program called the Roving Library is making it easy for scores of the Tenderloin's poor and homeless to borrow donated books, everything from Stephen King to feminist poets.

It's a new service from the Tenderloin Reflection and Education Center, an 18-year-old organization that sponsors art and writing programs in the Tenderloin.

Scroll down for full size photographs.

1. Karen Taylor and Monty Flippen searched through books from the Roving Library, a mobile library for homeless people in the Tenderloin. Chronicle photo by Michael Macor

2. Michael Morgan set up his shopping cart full of books in front of the St. Anthony Foundation on Jones Street, as he does twice a week. Chronicle photo by Michael Macor

3. Eddie Sanchez clutched a handful of books he selected from Michael Morgan's streetside library. Chronicle photo by Michael Macor

The Roving Library, actually a large shopping cart piloted by a homeless musician and writer, makes its rounds through the Tenderloin on Mondays and Fridays.

The library has proved to be popular, particularly when there are new Westerns or science fiction novels. No library cards are needed, and there are no overdue fines.

``One guy on a bike always returns his books every week, but a lot don't,'' said Michael Morgan, the new roving librarian. ``It's easy to lose stuff out here, so we don't care too much.''

The story of the 2-month-old library on wheels begins -- like many San Francisco stories these days -- with an eviction, of sorts.

Beginning in 1989, the Tenderloin Reflection and Education Center maintained a 1,000-book library at its headquarters within St. Boniface Church on Golden Gate Avenue. The library was a popular place with the Tenderloin's homeless community. It was a place for hanging out, reading and forgetting about the streets.

But this year the church began a renovation project. The center and its informal library lost their lease.

The center, a nonprofit group that publishes a quarterly literary journal containing poetry, drawings and other musings about life without a roof, found the only home it could afford -- a tiny office space on the ninth floor of the Central YMCA on Golden Gate Avenue. There is hardly enough room to turn around in the 15-by-20-foot space, let alone house a library.

So the group's books, which are donated or bought on the cheap from the San Francisco Public Library's used-book sales, went into storage.

``They were just packed up, and that wasn't doing anyone any good,'' said Mitch Gibson, director of the center.

The solution was obvious, Gibson said. Borrowing the idea of public library ``bookmobiles,'' which have been going into neighborhoods for years, the Roving Library was born.

The San Francisco Public Library's bookmobile is a colorful, buslike vehicle complete with newly released books, magazines and Internet access.

The Roving Library is a shopping cart that is kept in a storage unit on Hyde Street. The cart once belonged to Costco, but Gibson swears it was obtained legally.

The Roving Library serves a population that does not have much access to books.

``They (the homeless) can use the library, but people stare, and it's sometimes hard to get a library card,'' Gibson said.Morgan, who has been in San Francisco since 1995 and prefers books by psychologist Carl Jung and horror master Clive Barker, was hired because he loves to read and seems to know everyone in the Tenderloin. With hair past his shoulders and a scruffy, graying beard, Morgan resembles a thin Jerry Garcia.

He takes requests. If you're looking for a self-help book, or a biography or anything by Louis L'Amour, he keeps a list and will try to find it.

Morgan and his cart make stops at two residential hotels, the United Nations Plaza and the St. Anthony Foundation on Jones Street, where the noon-hour food line typically stretches for more than a block.

As many as 100 books an outing are distributed, Morgan said.

Books don't provide a job, a home or a meal. But they are a hot commodity for those without much to do.

``There isn't much entertainment out here, except for watching each other get busted,'' said Joseph Jones, who was sitting against an apartment building on Jones Street when Morgan pushed his cart by. Jones got up and, after a quick look and a recommendation from Morgan, chose ``Addicted to Danger,'' by mountain climbers Jim Wickwire and Dorothy Bullitt.

Gibson said he hopes Morgan can keep pushing his cart to more hot spots, even if the book-return rate is not that great. The center, which has an annual budget of about $50,000 a year, may use grant money to buy more books.

The new low-tech library has the support of librarians.

``Having access to reading material is one way to stay connected,'' said Karen Strauss, director of a public library program that delivers books to homebound HIV/AIDS patients. ``Reading truly can break down barriers. . . . It's a way to keep in touch with the world.''

Reading also is a way to shut out the world. That's why the Roving Library is important to Hannah Miriah.

``They are my refuge,'' she said, picking through Morgan's shopping cart at the St. Anthony's food line. ``Without books, I'd go crazy.''

Anyone interested in donating books or money to the Roving Library can call the Tenderloin Reflection and Education Center at (415) 558-8759.

E-mail Mark Martin at

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