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AmericaNorwood Community Library Brings Free Books to The Bronx

Norwood Community Library Brings Free Books to The Bronx

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(L to R) Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernández presents a State citation to Brandon Montes, founder of Norwood Community Library, at his book stand on October 16, 2021, during Hispanic Heritage Month.
Photo via Twitter
Outside the Keeper’s House on Reservoir Oval East in the Norwood section of the Bronx is a light blue library mailbox which, since around July 2021, has been regularly filled with used books, all waiting for new homes. The library mailbox is a recent initiative by “Norwood Community Library,” an outdoor, mutual aid, book exchange program.

30-year-old Brandon Montes is the founder of the volunteer-run library which launched in 2018, and he hopes the addition of the library mailbox will further strengthen his growing engagement with the community, through a love of reading.

“For a long time, we didn’t have an independent bookstore in the Bronx, so you know, it got me thinking,” said Montes who is an employee with New York City Administration for Children’s Services. “What does that say about our relationship with reading, you know? I had some extra books that I thought I could share and give out.”

Norwood Community Library’s grab-and-go library mailbox system is another way for Montes to bring literacy to the neighborhood he now calls home. A lifelong Bronx resident, and Norwood local since 2008, Montes said he has been doing whatever he can to share books with the community for the last three years.

The original iteration of Norwood Community Library consisted of a crate of Montes’ old books, chained to a fence outside a local bodega. His reason for launching the library? He says he wants to make a difference in the lives of people in the Bronx, despite being just one person on a mission, and he also wants to prevent books from being thrown away.

For a while, when he first started out, he said he just let people take or leave books at the makeshift crate library, changing up the selection on the weekends. At that time, he said he was giving away 15 to 45 books, on average, each weekend.

“During the pandemic, I felt a lot more responsibility,” Montes said. “And also, I wanted to make sure that things were as safe as possible. So, I decided I should start tabling with the books.” In the early days of the pandemic, before it became apparent how the coronavirus could be transmitted, he said he even used to wrap the books in plastic wrap and wipe them down with Lysol.

Since he started tabling, he said his community impact has grown substantially, and he is now giving away 70 to 100 books, on average, each weekend as well as interacting with community residents in person, rather than just leaving the books in the crate for people to pick up or drop off.

“I would say it’s grown,” he said of the free library system. “Like, it’s a staple of the neighborhood. Before, it was kind of just there, but now people kind of know me as ‘The Book Guy’.”

Photo 2 Norwood Community Library’s mailbox opened on July 31, 2021. It is located outside the Keeper’s House Edible Garden at 3400 Reservoir Oval East in the Norwood section of the Bronx.
Photo by Sarah Huffman

Montes said he usually sets up his table on East Gun Hill Road between Wayne Avenue and Bainbridge Avenue each weekend, but he has also gone further afield to Crotona Park and elsewhere. When interacting with his neighbors, he said, occasionally, he gets rejected by some people who are wary of people handing out free stuff, assuming, perhaps, there is some type of catch, but he said, generally, he’s met with positivity.

“People are always very happy to pick up books for their children,” Montes said, adding that many others are happy to see something for free. “People are, you know, open to reading some of my [book] recommendations as well, which always feels nice,” he added.

Since his early days, the book-exchange program has blossomed, and Montes now works with local nonprofit, Mosholu Preservation Corporation, which owns the Keeper’s House. He was, therefore, able to secure the space for the outdoor library mailbox, outside the house, which is also adjacent to the local community Keeper’s House Edible Garden at 3400 Reservoir Oval East.

Montes maintains the mailbox, checking and replenishing it every so often, and promotes it on social media, letting residents know they are welcome to take books or leave books for others to take. Indeed, he credits social media for much of the recent expansion of the book exchange program.

He said some people end up keeping the books and that that’s ok too, as the objective is really to get people reading. On social media, he shares positive, inspiring messages of growth, purpose, and harmony with others, as well as recommending books to read.

Montes came up with the idea for the library mailbox, together with The Dowe Twins, a company and brand created by 12-year-old local, Bronx twins, Princeton and Brazil Dowe. The twins, who have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and who also have an auditory processing disorder, do not let these setbacks stand in the way of their development, however.

Their company/brand aims to bring awareness to, and empower, kids who learn differently from others, and they have even co-authored a range of books of their own, such as, “The Dowe Twins: The Days of the Week (More 2 Learn Series)” and “The Dowe Twins Healthy Living Series: Time to Read the Ingredients Labels.”

Montes also partners with other local organizations while distributing his free books. To mark the library’s third anniversary, he partnered with Jerome Gun Hill Business Improvement District (BID), an organization that provides support to businesses in the Norwood area, and together they organized a free, school supplies and book giveaway. At that event, Montes said he gave out between 100 to 150 books.

“Overall, showing up for the Bronx, that always warms my heart,” Montes said. He has also partnered with other Bronx organizations to support other initiatives. With the Bronx (Re) Birth and Progress Collective, an organization that “seeks to build alternate solutions outside of the system that protect and honor birthing people in the Bronx and their families,” he’s spread awareness of the organization and handed out emergency Plan B with the same group.

Other group collaborations have been with “Mi Oh My Farms,” which distributes free, hydroponically grown greens. Hydroponics is a form of gardening that uses no soil, but instead grows plants in a solution of water and nutrients. Montes also supports The Fridge Girls, a group who helps provide food for community fridges and food drives.

He has also provided manga and urban fiction writings to teens in juvenile justice centers. Something he said he’s particularly proud of is the distribution of 100 copies of the book, “An African American and Latinx History of the United States,” by Paul Ortiz. “We’re getting that history that isn’t taught in schools, straight to the people,” said Montes.

For those wondering where Montes gets all these books, he said he receives donations from other Bronxites, partner organizations, schools, neighbors, and co-workers. He said his stockpile used to be just a few boxes of extra books but now he has a closet and storage unit dedicated to them.

While the Norwood Community Library is mostly a one-man operation, Montes said he has occasional volunteers who also help him. Delia Fernandez is one such volunteer, and a friend of Montes who said she’s been helping him since the beginning. “It’s been really cool to see him expand everything,” she said. “It started off really with just one crate, and he’s really been able to build it into something much larger. So, it’s been really cool to see also how the other people in the community kind of gravitate towards it,” she added.

Meanwhile, Laura Moya said she knows Montes from the neighborhood, but got involved with the library a year ago after seeing his work on social media. “I thought it was fantastic that he’s bringing literature into our neighborhood, and people are actually responding to it,” she said.

“I think that’s a direct response of having someone from the community doing work for the community, instead of an outsider,” she added. “He really understands what our people want, and he makes it accessible,” she said. A lifelong, self-described bookworm, Montes said he’s always loved reading and the role it plays in his life.

Brandon Montes, founder of Norwood Community Library, and his volunteers hand out free books to Bronx residents in Crotona Park on October 17, 2021.
Photo by Sarah Huffman

“I grew up really liking Lemony Snicket, and George Orwell when I got into my teens.” Other favorites are Kurt Vonnegut and Zadie Smith. “I really like Clarice Lispector, Trevor Noah,” he said. “These guys are so talented. I find a lot of peace with reading, and it expands the mind. There’s a lot of distractions, and I’m only human. Of course, I have my own battles with distractions as well, but reading helps battle that there. Also, you know, it’s nourishing,” he said.

In addition to the book exchange program, Montes also hosts the Norwood Community Library book club, where members meet every two months on Google to discuss a selected book.

Montes’ work in the community has been recognized, and to coincide with Hispanic Heritage Month, on Oct. 16, he received a citation from local Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernández (A.D. 80), who said she was proud to honor Montes as founder of the library. “This Bronx book exchange program is an essential asset for the Norwood community, bringing the community together to share its resources to all,” Fernández wrote on Twitter, along with a photo of herself presenting the citation to Montes at his book stand. “Keep up the great work!” she added.

Looking to the future, Montes said he’d like to collaborate in another food drive. Long term, he said he’d love to start a learning center, something to offer support to his fellow Bronxites. “I’m thankful to be from the Bronx, and I’m thankful for the Bronx to be so happy with what I’m doing,” he said.

Follow @norwoodcommunitylibrary on Instagram and @norwoodbxbooks on Twitter for more information, and to see where Montes sets up next. For more information about The Dowe Twins, go to https://thedowetwins.com/.

*Síle Moloney contributed to this story.

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