Washington Heights sidewalk library losing popularity

Kevin Klepper voluntarily installs and maintains public bookshelveson the streets of Washington Heights and Inwood.
Kevin Klepper voluntarily installs and maintains public bookshelveson the streets of Washington Heights and Inwood. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Justin Merriman

Kevin Klepper has never been a bookworm, but by chance he became a patron to readers — launching community bookshelves on sidewalks across Washington Heights and Inwood.

More than five years ago, a friend urged the general contractor, who is known to enjoy rummaging through garbage for salvageable material, to check out a bevy of books stashed inside the three-bedroom apartment of an elderly resident who had recently died.

Not wanting to toss the books, Klepper opted to place a bookshelf in front of the Starbucks on 181st Street, near Fort Washington Avenue. He stacked it with titles and posted a sign inviting Nomat — a reference to northern Manhattan neighborhoods above Harlem — to drop a book off and pick one up.

“It became a community center,” said Klepper, 54, who enjoys reading online, but says he has never been a voracious reader. “I do get a sense of satisfaction … when a woman says, ‘I really couldn’t afford these books for my kids. Thank you so much.’ ”

Within a month or two, Klepper had added a second shelf, and launched a book club. He gradually built up the mini library system to 10 sidewalk stations.

Klepper toiled over the project, swapping out aging bookshelves, sanding, repainting and varnishing the furniture and installing plastic sheets that can be rolled down to protect books during storms.

The community bookshelves have since become a neighborhood mainstay, according to those who use them.

Edita Almanzar, 50, picked up “One Hundred Years of Solitude” from the shelf outside the 181st Street Starbucks Tuesday and said her daughter may need to read it in school.

“I love to pick up some books from here,” said Almanzar, who lives nearby. “Sometimes, I cross the street just to see it.”

Derek Gaither, who also lives nearby, said he has found many gems on that shelf, including a century-old book of classic British poetry he gave to a friend.

“Treasures — you never know what you’ll find here,” said Gaither, while unloading a pile of magazines he said someone had been recycling in his building.

But the neighborhood is changing, according to Klepper, who has lived in Washington Heights for 20 years. As more people move to the area from downtown and elsewhere, Klepper said fewer of his neighbors seem to have the time to stop and chat. He is unsure how much work they will be willing to put into the community bookshelves, which have dropped down to eight locations.

Klepper was disappointed that he was only able to collect $1,500 through an online fundraiser he launched two years ago to help him pay for large, plastic newspaper holders, which he believed would hold up better than the bookshelves during storms. They cost $1,000 each, with shipping.

And now that he has a 5-month-old baby, Klepper says he will not be able to put as much time into the community shelves, so others will need to step up.

“I’m burned out from it … I’m not going to be replacing the bookshelves unless I have some kind of help or financing,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated Klepper was fundraising for protective book sheets. He raised $1,500 for plastic newspaper holders.

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