By SARAH HUFFMAN
Outside the Warden’s House on Reservoir Oval East in the Norwood section of the Bronx is a light blue letterbox that, as of around July 2021, has been regularly stocked with used books, all waiting for new homes. The Library Mailbox is a recent initiative of the Norwood Community Library, an outdoor book exchange and support program.
Brandon Montes, 30, is the founder of the volunteer-run library which was launched in 2018, and he hopes the addition of the library mailbox will further strengthen his growing engagement with the community, through his love of reading.
âFor a long time we didn’t have an independent bookstore in the Bronx, so you know that got me thinking,â said Montes, who is a New York City administration employee for services at childhood. “What does that say about our relationship to reading, you know?” I had a few extra books that I thought I could share and distribute.
The Norwood Community Library take-out mailbox system is another way Montes is teaching the neighborhood he now calls home to literacy. A lifelong Bronx resident and Norwood local since 2008, Montes said he has done everything he can to share books with the community for the past three years.
The original iteration of the Norwood Community Library consisted of a case of old Montes 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 the people of 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 started he said he just let people take or leave books in the makeshift library, changing the selection on weekends. At that time, he said he handed out 15 to 45 books, on average, every weekend.
âDuring the pandemic, I felt a lot more responsibility,â Montes said. âAnd also, I wanted to make sure things were as safe as possible. So, I decided that I should start laying down with the books. At the start of the pandemic, before it became obvious how the coronavirus could be transmitted, he said he even used to wrap books in plastic wrap and wipe them down with Lysol.
Since he started filing, he said his impact on the community has grown dramatically and he now distributes 70 to 100 books, on average, every weekend and interacts in person with residents of the community, rather than just leaving the books in the pick-up or drop-off crate.
âI would say he’s grown up,â he said of the free library system. âLike, it’s a neighborhood staple. It used to be right there, but now people sort of know me as “The Book Guy”.
Montes said he usually sets up his table on East Gun Hill Road between Wayne Avenue and Bainbridge Avenue every weekend, but he’s also gone further to Crotona Park and elsewhere. When interacting with his neighbors, he said he was sometimes rejected by some people who were suspicious of people giving out free stuff, assuming, perhaps, that there was some type of trap, but he said, in general, that he was greeted with positivity.
âPeople are always very happy to collect books for their children,â Montes said, adding that many others are happy to see something for free. âPeople are, you know, open to reading some of my [book] recommendations too, which is always nice, âhe added.
Since its inception, the book exchange program has flourished and Montes now works with the local nonprofit Mosholu Preservation Corporation, which owns the Keeper’s House. So he was able to secure the space for the library’s outdoor 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, checks it and replenishes it from time to time, and promotes it on social media, advising residents that they are welcome to pick up books or leave books for others. 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’s good too, because the goal is really to get people to read. On social media, he shares positive and inspiring messages of growth, purpose and harmony with others, as well as recommended books to read.
Montes came up with the idea for the library mailbox, working with The Dowe Twins, a company and brand created by 12-year-old twins from the Bronx, Princeton and Brazil Dowe. The twins, who have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and also have a hearing processing disorder, however, do not let these setbacks hinder their development.
Their company / brand aims to educate and empower children who learn differently from others. 2 Learn Series) âandâ The Dowe Twins Healthy Living Series: It’s Time to Read Ingredient Labels â.
FREE BOOKS AND MASKS FOR ALL! Saturday 20/11/21 12h-330h, such good weather! GUN HILL ROAD BETWEEN WAYNE AND BAINBRIDGE AVENUES pic.twitter.com/EZBXPbbxuc
– Norwood Community Library (@norwoodbxbooks) November 16, 2021
Montes also partners with other local organizations while distributing his free books. To mark the library’s third anniversary, it teamed up with Jerome Gun Hill Business Improvement District (BID), an organization that supports businesses in the Norwood area, and together they organized a free distribution of school supplies and of books. At this event, Montes said he distributed between 100 and 150 books.
âOverall, showing up for the Bronx always warms my heart,â Montes said. It has also partnered with other organizations in the Bronx to support other initiatives. With the Bronx (Re) Birth and Progress Collective, an organization that “seeks to create alternative solutions outside the system that protect and honor those giving birth in the Bronx and their families,” he raised awareness of the organization and distributed the emergency plan B. with the same group.
Other group collaborations have taken place with “Mi Oh My Farms”, which distributes hydroponically grown greens for free. Hydroponics is a form of gardening that does not use soil, but rather grows plants in a solution of water and nutrients. Montes also supports The Fridge Girls, a group that helps provide food for community refrigerators and food drives.
He also provided manga and urban fiction writings to teenagers in juvenile justice centers. One thing he says he is particularly proud of is the distribution of 100 copies of the book, “An African-American and Latin History of the United States”, by Paul Ortiz. âWe are getting this story that is not taught in schools, directly to people,â Montes said.
For those wondering where Montes gets all these books, he said he receives donations from other Bronxites, partner organizations, schools, neighbors and colleagues. He said his stock was only made up of a few extra boxes of books, but now has a dedicated closet and storage unit for them.
While the Norwood Community Library is primarily a one-man operation, Montes said he has occasional volunteers helping him as well. Delia Fernandez is one of those volunteers and a friend of Montes who said she has been helping him from the start. âIt was really cool to see him expand everything,â she said. âIt really started with just one crate, and he was really able to transform it into something much bigger. So it’s been really cool to see how other people in the community gravitate around that as well, âshe added.
Meanwhile, Laura Moya said she knew Montes from the neighborhood, but got involved with the library a year ago after seeing her work on social media. âI thought it was fantastic that he brought literature to our neighborhood, and people are really reacting to it,â she said.
âI think it’s a straightforward response to have someone from the community working for the community, instead of a stranger,â she added. âHe really understands what our people want and he makes it accessible,â she said. Longtime and self-proclaimed bookworm, Montes said he has always loved reading and the role it plays in his life.
“I grew up really loving Lemony Snicket and George Orwell when I was in my teens.” The other favorites are Kurt Vonnegut and Zadie Smith. âI really like Clarice Lispector, Trevor Noah,â he said. âThese guys are so talented. I find a lot of peace with reading, and it broadens the mind. There are a lot of distractions, and I’m just a human. Of course, I also have my own battles with distractions, but reading helps combat that there. Plus, you know, it’s nourishing, âhe 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 was recognized, and to coincide with Hispanic Heritage Month on October 16, he received a citation from local MP Nathalia FernÃ¡ndez (AD 80), who said she was proud of ‘honor Montes as the founder of the library. . “This Bronx book exchange program is a vital asset to the Norwood community, bringing the community together to share its resources with all,” FernÃ¡ndez wrote on Twitter, accompanied by a photo of herself presenting the quote to Montes. on his book stand. “Keep up the good work!” she added.
Looking to the future, Montes said he would like to collaborate on another food drive. In the long term, he said he would like to create a learning center, something to offer support to his compatriots in the Bronxites. âI’m grateful to be from the Bronx, and I’m grateful that the Bronx is so happy with what I’m doing,â he said.
To follow @norwoodcommunitylibrary on Instagram and @norwoodbxbooks on Twitter for more information and to see where Montes is settling next. For more information on the Dowe twins, visit https://thedowetwins.com/.
* SÃle Moloney contributed to this story.