Right in the heart of Edinburgh, on the lower floor of a small indie bookstore called Lighthouse, is the current home of Street Reads, a non-profit, non-governmental organisation run by Ms Rachel Cowan. Also known as “the Book Wumman”, Rachel is a firm believer in the transformative power of reading, and has been donating books to homeless folk since 2015. Street Reads –as well as Rachel– have been through a lot ever since. One of the first things I noticed about her is that her compassion for the homeless lacked any element of pity or sense of superiority, but rather came from a sense of kinship with this folk; Rachel is deeply empathetic in the way only a person who has themselves gone through plenty of hardships can be.
I first heard about this initiative from our programme leader, Ms Avril Gray, who recommended Street Reads as a volunteering placement. I immediately applied for the placement, because I’ve enjoyed volunteering in the past, and I felt especially drawn to the idea of giving away books in the same way you would give a blanket or food to those in need, as they are equally important. A book is a portal to another world, and this sort of escapism is vital to people whose own life is in ruins. Working with Rachel and listening to her stories about the homeless readers who sometimes confide in her, opened my eyes even wider to the harsh realities that exist alongside us.
My own little contribution to Street Reads mostly consisted of filing, tidying up our overflowing crates and bookcases, and picking out suitable books for the crates that Rachel brings with her to charity or church initiatives involved with homelessness, such as Souper Saturday (a project of The Station, a newly registered charity), Soul Food (of St Paul and St George’s Church), and homeless shelters. The way Street Reads works is that the readers are not randomly given the books as gifts but they get to pick (and keep) their books. Selecting which books to bring is very important, since the aim is to attract as many readers as possible, and offer them books they actually want to read.
Picking out books was a little tricky at first, but soon I got the hang of it: lots of crime and thriller (yes, Ian Rankin is immensely popular with all demographics!), lots of classics, a sprinkle of historical and literary fiction, books in foreign languages (not all of the readers have English as their first language, and the comfort of reading in one’s mother language is incomparable), YA and children’s fiction, and strictly NO chick lit. The last one is hardly surprising, as the content of these books isn’t relatable to women who have been, and are currently going through, experiences of mental and physical abuse, desolation, poverty and homelessness. All in all, the same rule that applies to publishing applied here as well: know your market. Format is important too: hardbacks may be beautiful on the shelf, but they are not easy to carry around, and practicality is the priority.
But all the enthusiasm and drive in the world are not in themselves enough to run any sort of organisation. In the end, it comes down to funding. This is the main struggle Street Reads is facing, and it weighs heavily on Rachel. With the help of social media (Twitter mostly), a ton of people have grown interested in our mission, and have been dropping by the bookcave to donate their books. Other donors that have been supporting Street Reads for a while now include Canongate Books and The Skinny magazine. As a result, Street Reads is currently by no means lacking in books. What it lacks are regular sponsors. Rachel, who is apt to speak in metaphors, compares herself and the volunteers with firefighters, struggling to put out many small fires at a time with a towel, while what we really should be doing is putting out the big fire with a professional fire engine. But there’s no professional equipment; no steady funding. And as long as this continues, Street Reads is stuck on the short-term, managing the day-to-day demands, barely making ends meet; as Rachel put it: “we cannot do the big picture”.
While this might be the reality right now, there is always hope for the future. 2018 is the year when Street Reads aspires to finally become a registered charity. Along with that, I hope that all the hard work put into this initiative will be recognised, and that Street Reads will attract regular sponsors, so that everyone involved can finally afford to think for the long-term. Until then, I am very grateful to Rachel for all the things I’ve learnt so far and all the things I will learn in the coming months; it’s been an honour firefighting with her.