With commuters’ eyes typically glued to tablets and smartphones these days, two women are working to encourage subway riders to put down the technology and pick up a book.
Rosy Kehdi and Hollie Fraser run Books on the Subway, a nonprofit organization that does exactly what its name suggests: leave books on the subway for riders to pick up for free.
The two Brooklynites liken their organization to a public library on the rails. Fraser estimates they leave anywhere from five to 20 books a day, though there can be more on special occasions.
“Occasionally, on some special books — like with the Anna Kendrick [book “Scrappy Little Nobody”] — it was 100 books,” Kehdi says. “But on average, we try to top it at 50 just because of manpower at this point.”
And that leads to another thing — the movement has landed them some famous fans, including Emma Watson and Kendrick, who signed 20 of the copies that they distributed.
Fraser, 30, originally from the United Kingdom, started the movement with Books on the Underground in 2012. Kehdi, 29, who came to the Big Apple from Lebanon in 2012, launched Books on the Subway in 2013, and was joined by Fraser, who moved to New York City.
When not leaving books around town, Fraser works as a freelance art director for an advertising agency and Kehdi is in account management, also in advertising.
amNewYork spoke with Kehdi and Fraser about Books on the Subway.
How did this start?
Hollie Fraser: So I started Books on the Underground in London back in 2012. I designed this sticker, gave it the name, Books on the Underground, and then made it into a Facebook and Instagram page and then just started leaving books from my bookshelf. And then kept doing that for a while. And then a small publisher got in touch and I did a promotion for them and then off the back of that a little bit of PR happened.
Rosy Kehdi: I was here in New York and I really loved the idea so much and thought it would be perfect for New York. So I reached out to Hollie through her Twitter channel and I’m like, “Hey I would love to start this in New York. Would you mind?” And she was very supportive and she helped me design my sticker for New York, and we called it Books on the Subway. And she put me in touch with a couple of authors, who sent me books so I got started with them. And it started growing from there. She was doing it in London; I was doing it in New York. So that was in 2013 for me. And then [Hollie] moved to New York in 2014, so now we co-run together here.
New York definitely makes sense for something like this.
RK: New York is the best place to launch these kinds of ideas — besides obviously London — because everyone is so open to new ideas and new things. It’s another way of bringing books to people who may not have access to them as easily. It’s free charity.
HF: I think it’s a community project. It’s just us two doing it. In London there was just me and another girl. It has a feel-good vibe to it. … And [people] find it weird, like, “Oh, this is free. There must be a catch. Like why is this book here? What’s the deal?” It’s like, “No we just wanted to leave books for people to read.” So it’s kind of fun to be the weird book fairies, as we call ourselves.
Do you foresee expanding to distribute a lot more books?
HF: We want to keep it relatively small. It’s not supposed to be a huge promotional tool. It’s supposed to be about a grassroots campaign that got people reading.
RK: We don’t want to flood the subway. It still has to have that grassroots [feel] but also a scavenger [hunt]. People actually at one point [were saying], “Where are you hiding them? Where is it? I want to go.” So people are actually scavenging for these books. So if we just flood the subway it defeats the purpose.
HF: I feel like there’s something compelling, as well, for people. It’s like serendipity. If a book’s there they’re like, “Oh, maybe it’s meant for me.”
So the premise is that people read it and you want them to put it back. Have you encountered any of the books you put out after they circulated?
RK: Not physically in person. But we’ve definitely seen people either tell us, “I just dropped this book” or someone would find a book that we had dropped maybe months ago. So obviously someone had dropped it and that person found it. So there has been some response where people actually read, take the book, read it and put it back.
HF: In London, I found a book that I had left a year before. And I was like, “That is crazy. I left that book here last year.” Not here. But like on the subway somewhere. I was like, “Oh, my god. Somebody’s obviously read it and put it back.” Or maybe a few people had read it and put it back.
How can people help?
HF: We’ve got book fairies at the moment. … We’ve got a group of volunteers who we have just started to use. … They’re going to receive books and help us put them on the subway as well. And it’s quite good because obviously me and Rosy have got our routes that we go on quite frequently and now we’ve got people in Queens and the Upper West Side …
RK: Coney island, which is awesome because we would never go there. The more people we recruit on our team the more spread out across the city we can get.
HF: So we need someone in the Bronx. People keep asking us, “Do you leave books in the Bronx?”
RK: So we’ve actually had this book where [it] is set in the Bronx so the author was like, “I hope it makes it to the Bronx.” I’m like, “We’ll just take it up there. If that book was written there it’s meant to be dropped up there.” … [The Bronx is] completely out of our way, we’re both in Brooklyn. So it’s always hard. Right now, as we grow our team, we definitely want to explore up there and Staten Island.
HF: Staten Island! That’s what everyone says. Staten Island! We don’t go to Staten Island very often.
Just drop it on the ferry.
HF: Yeah, Books on the Ferry.
Are your apartments stockpiled with books?
HF: We tell people [to not] send us the books until a couple of days before, because literally we live in tiny New York apartments.
RK: Holly has a closet — her pantry in the kitchen is actually filled with books. And I have a second bedroom that is currently not in use that is loaded with boxes.
HF: You have a bedroom. I have a cupboard in the kitchen.
What books can you tease that people might see around the subway?
RK: We’re doing an exciting partnership with a big philanthropic charity in March, which we’re super looking forward to and ironing out the details with them now. So it’s a women’s empowerment kind of nonprofit company. So we’re just starting a few conversations with them.
Where is this going next? What’s the future?
HF: We’ve created something that could be a platform, which will be about female authors empowering women and writers and authors and all of that kind of world because we can hopefully do something with it. Become a platform for speakers or hold events, get like-minded people together.
RK: There’s a few literacy organizations in this city, especially up in the Bronx, that hopefully in the future we can partner with them to bring more books to these areas that do need a little bit more love.
HF: And if we can figure out a way to keep the integrity of it and make money and donate that money to reading charities and stuff within New York City, so it becomes a good cycle — we give back to reading in the city and then people want to fund it that way — that would be cool.
Follow Books on the Subway at @BooksSubway on Twitter, @booksonthesubway on Instagram and at facebook.com/bookssubway.