By Jessica A. Kent
August 2, 2019
We all know Charlie on the MTA, the hapless commuter who, short a nickel, is fated to ride beneath the streets of Boston, never to return. It’s the basis of a 1962 campaign song that turned quintessential Boston pop culture. But mornings today are frequently fraught with the same Charlie-esque misadventure: We’re often stuck underground for long periods of time.
If only we had some good books to read.
This is where Books on the T comes in. They’re a local volunteer literary organization intent on “sharing new titles for adults and youth on the MBTA, creat[ing] a traveling library that introduces books to the Greater Boston community.” With their legion of Book Fairies, Books on the T will do book drops around various T stations and train cars. They’ll take a quick picture for social media – a lure for curious book-hunters – and slip away. If you find a book, it’s yours.
I met up with one of the founders, Araceli Hintermeister, on a summer afternoon in Downtown Crossing, to learn more about the organization and to go on a book drop ourselves.
Books on the T arose from a collection of global “Books on the Move” initiatives, starting with Books on the Underground in London in 2012, and popping up in NYC (Books on the Subway), Washington, D.C. (Books on the Metro), Chicago (Books on the L), and Sydney, Australia (Book on the Rail). In 2016, inspired by what they saw these already established organizations doing, Hintermeister and local author Judy Gelman – who didn’t yet know one another – reached out independently to see if a Boston/MBTA initiative was happening. They both got a “No,” but ended up connecting with one another and starting it themselves. The third entity of the team was Catherine Gaggioli, a friend of Hintermeister.
“We’re all in very different literary backgrounds. Judy is an author, and works with a lot of other authors, so has really good connections in publishing. I’m a librarian. Catherine’s also a librarian…and a social media guru, in my opinion,” explains Hintermeister about the creation of Books on the T. “We started discussing the mission of what we wanted Books on the T to be. What would be the differences between New York, which was really the most prominent one, and Books on the Underground in London, and how we could bring that to our city?”
A quick look at their Instagram feed, which chronicles the book drops throughout the city, shows a wonderfully varied line-up of titles, from novels to memoirs to self-help, even cookbooks, and a myriad of children’s books. In the background are the dropped stops – a snippet of railing or fixture of a station to hint at where the book could be, or sometimes a full shot of the station’s sign, a book perched on a bench beneath. The shots show the hide-and-seek literary game, but also serve to showcase everyday life in Boston.
As Hintermeister and I walked up Summer Street towards the Park Street T Station, I was handed a novel, The Masterpiece, by Fiona Davis (ironically a novel about another train station, Grand Central), and given instruction on how to go about planning the drop. It seemed that a book drop is really what the Book Fairy wants to make it: Leave it out in the open for someone to find or figure out the perfect hiding place, go near populated areas or find a vacant space. From experience, Hintermeister suggested that sometimes the secondary entrances of a T station are perfect spots for drops, too.
“We definitely coordinated with the MBTA for several months – like, what is appropriate, what is not appropriate, where can we post books, where can we not,” explains Hintermeister. An early partnership with the T was key, of course, and the relationship has been positive (including MBTA requests to “up PR” in certain areas with more book drops). Still, there are guidelines: No books on empty seats, no books on top of or blocking equipment, no books that might inhibit the work of the T station workers, or interfere with commuters. Each Book Fairy has seemed to find their own secret spots through the city, to keep things out of the way, but in plain sight.
We descended into the northbound side of the Green Line, and used our passes to get in. It’s rare that someone goes into a T station not to commute, so focus shifts. Instead of being a headphoned commuter intent on catching the next train, I was actually looking at the station and all its components and architecture, and viewing those passing by me not as fellow commuters but as future book finders.
Since most of the activity tends towards the main entrances of Park Street, we went a little ways into the station, to the stairwell that leads to the tunnel connecting the northbound and southbound Green Line. Hintermeister said that it’s up to the Book Fairy how they want to place the book, what kind of shot they want to set up, and so I positioned it just right to get that perfect social media capture. No one was paying attention to us.
We left the book and departed, and once above ground posted to social media. Someone in the station may have already picked it up; someone on social media may have seen the drop and gone after it. We wouldn’t know.
One of the questions I asked was if they ever find out what happens to the books they drop. “We definitely get some pictures and people being really excited,” Hintermeister tells me, adding that they mostly see those who pick up the books post. “Less likely we hear about people putting it back. We know they do because I’ve encountered books that we’ve put there months before. So we know they go back. Less people actually photograph and let us know about it. And then we definitely know that people keep them as well, which we were Ok with from the beginning. We just want them to go out there, and they are out there.”
A significant amount of coordination and preparation happens, though, before the books ever hit the stations, and it’s the kind of logistics one would expect in an organization much older than Books on the T, and much bigger. First, the books have to be collected, either through author submissions or working with publishers or organizations interested in partnering with Books on the T. And then the books have to be vetted. Hintermeister explained that they acknowledge that everyone has a different taste in books, and so try to provide authors and titles from a wide spectrum. They do, however, try to stay away from more controversial books dealing with politics or religion, a tip they picked up from NYC’s Books on the Subway. There tends to be many memoirs, and the submissions are fiction-heavy. But there’s a vast range of titles, and for all ages, too.
Once the books are agreed upon, it’s up to the author or publisher to donate the copies they’d like distributed, which can range from a few copies up to a hundred. (“When it’s seventy and above we do tell them, hey, hold up, we don’t have that many people, we’re not sure we can handle this! But I think the most we’ve gotten has been 100 books.”) Books on the T does charge a small amount to cover sticker costs – each book is affixed with a sticker reading “TAKE this book with you, READ it, then RETURN it at a T stop for someone else to enjoy!” And then the coordination begins.
Books on the T has about ten volunteers, or Book Fairies, that run the drops throughout town – on the different T lines, but also at bus stops, on the Commuter Rail, and occasionally on the Ferry. “We do get together once a month and just have fun, talk about books, and things we’re up to. And then definitely think more about the books that we’re dropping,” Hintermeister explains. “Maybe someone lives close to that station. We have an idea of everyone’s commute: ‘You’re the Red Line, you’re the Orange Line…’” Ultimately for Hintermeister, the connection with the volunteers – their different backgrounds and interests, their diversity – has been incredibly valuable.
And for Books on the T, “to engage the community in promoting literacy and encourage excitement about reading across the Boston metro area” has been the mission behind the books. Hintermeister expanded on that idea of making it community-focused. They encourage Boston-based authors to submit their work – from big-named authors to small press, even self-published. Books on the T will partner with the author for promotion, dropping the book at a T stop near a location that relates to the book, for instance, or including the author’s information, hashtags, and even upcoming event information in their social media posts. Additionally, Books on the T will reach out to local publishing companies asking for partnerships during upcoming months, where publishers who want to promote new releases can reserve time on the Books on the T schedule.
In past years, Books on the T has partnered with the Boston Book Festival to feature the BBF’s author line-up in their book drops during the month of October, and to get copies of the One City One Story read out. Last year, they joined other volunteer organization in helping the BBF do book drops around the city – not just in the T, which provided some more interesting drop places. Said Hintermeister, “A lot of us have fun with the statues, especially the Back Bay statue where the man has his hand up. We’ll always put a book there.”
But beyond the Boston Book Festival, Hintermeister desires Books on the T to connect and collaborate more with other local partners. “We’ve been trying to do more partnerships with specific community service organizations, non-profits. Is there a book you would like to feature to bring awareness to the cause that you’re working in?” Hintermeister also mentioned doing book drops around specific days, like dropping business books during Small Business Week. While the group has only been around for about two years, the ways they’ve connected in the city already have been vast, and the vision they have for greater cultivating of the local literary community is big.
Even though the Book Fairies may seem like invisible ninjas, appearing and disappearing out of stations and leaving you your next great read, behind the mystery is a set of book enthusiasts hoping to contribute to the literary landscape of Boston. “There are so many people who are working with books in one way or another, whether it’s writers, or working through publishing, or being librarians,” Hintermeister observes, echoing sentiments of many. “There are so many book lovers in Boston, and it’s always been really nice to connect over that.”