When Josh first pitched the idea for a series of interviews to highlight initiatives addressing educational disparities, it struck me just how deep the two of us are into careers as educators. Neither of us were overachievers in school, and yet here we were: two teachers committed to education as a tool of liberation and empowerment.
After the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police reignited the conversation regarding the institutional racism ever present throughout all facets of society, education has become a hot bed for reform, civil activism, and decolonizing of school systems. Three initiatives that Josh and I decided to highlight in this educational series operating outside the traditional school structure are the volunteer organization Norwood Community Library, the literacy based non-profit Start Lighthouse, and the consultancy and social entrepreneurship school Basecamp.
This is the first interview with Norwood Community Library to highlight the benefits that these programs hold for the educational community outside of the classroom. It is our hope not only to highlight the necessary work that must be done outside of the educational system to ensure that we continue to elevate, but also to inspire others to give back to their community in any way they deem possible. Whether donating time, funds, or developing their own community ideas, investment in educational programs and the community around us is a clear cut way to work against the injustice that is rampant throughout society.
Learn more about the series here.
As society spends more time online on social media, streaming, gaming, and other technological pastimes, the time spent reading continues to fall. Whether because of lack of time, financial difficulties, reading levels, or disinterest, books are a frequently forgotten or overlooked medium. One bright side of the quarantine imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic is that books are being bought again. Major retailers have been able to use the online delivery and curbside models to great success. Indie bookstores that are reliant on the atmosphere and vibe, however, are struggling. What’s worse, some communities have no bookstores at all.
The Bronx, with a population of 1.4 million, is a literary desert, notorious for going three years without a general-interest bookshop after the property owner for Barnes & Noble’s Bay Plaza location did not extend a lease renewal. In truth, the problem extends far beyond stores: public school funding often falls short, leaving libraries by the wayside in favor of other vital services. The New York Public Library serves the Bronx as best it can, but not every neighborhood has a location, and the fight for more equitable policies and access is a constant uphill budget battle. All of this weakens community members’ access to information and, by extension, their ability to self-educate in a time of massive disinformation. In the midst of this void, Brandon Montes decided to take literacy into his own hands.
For those who know him, Montes is a hometown superhero. A graduate of Fordham University, by day, he works for the Research Foundation at CUNY, supporting the New York City Administration for Children’s Services’ Workforce Institute, where he coordinates programs and teaches supervisors and managers working in youth justice and child welfare. But on the weekends, Montes brings books back to the Bronx as the one-person powerhouse behind Norwood Community Library. Founded in August 2018, the free, grassroots book exchange program sets up shop on weekends on East Gun Hill Road between Bainbridge and Wayne. The library’s scaled up a bit since its inception, but it’s still operated completely by Montes, who carries his crates to his usual spot between the bodega and pizzeria and normally hangs out from about 11AM to 4PM. The day varies by week, he announces availability on Instagram and Twitter. Though COVID has complicated things, anyone can stop by to borrow a (sanitized, plastic wrapped) book free of charge from the library’s collection. If you’re not sure what you like, Montes will be happy to recommend based on your interests, and we’ve heard he doesn’t miss.
Citing his grandmother and mother as his introduction to the value of literature, Brandon rattles off The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, Cirque Du Freak series by Darren Shan, and Harry Potter as key to his childhood investment in books. Brandon even tells us, “I worked at Scholastic for a little bit and when they were shutting down I was able to grab some copies so I have plans for reading that in life.” Brandon’s commitment to the books and his community is a testament to the grassroots organization that a DIY ethic allows for. He even has his local bodega selling vegetarian sandwiches to honor his work.
Check out our interview below where we discuss the value of literature, dead white authors, and meeting people where they are at.
Josh: Who are you and how do you identify?
Brandon: My name is Brandon Montes and I identify as he/him/his. I do like to use inclusive language when I post on social media for Norwood Community Library, so I do use “we” a lot.
Josh: Why do you like to use inclusive language?
Brandon: Just because I am the leader of this, but this is for the community. I like to show that it’s for everyone.
Josh: As far as I know it’s just you. Who do you reprepresent?
Brandon: The name of the organization is Norwood Community Library. Basically it’s a book exchange in the Bronx. I take books from other members of the community and put them out here in my neighborhood, since August 2018. At first it was I’d set it up and hang out there a little bit. But then I would leave and come back at sundown. Sometimes I would come back and there were new books in there. Since COVID has started I’ve had to make changes, so now for the time being until things are a bit safer whenever I put the books out I’m wearing a mask and gloves, the books are in plastic and I’ve wiped them down, and I sit by the crates the entire time and I’ll do shifts. I’ll do that about once per week now when the weather is hospitable enough. For now it is, but I think it’s gonna change when it gets too brick, which does suck a little bit. I do have two book clubs lined up, so I have other opportunities to engage the reading community in the Bronx for when I can’t be out there anymore. But I’m trying to take advantage of every fair weekend until that point to be out there.
Chris: What are these book clubs you’ve got lined up?
Brandon: We’re gonna be meeting for the second time to discuss The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin this weekend. Then on January 16th we’re gonna be talking about An African American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz. I might do two discussions of that depending on how things go. They’re open for anyone interested, I’ll just send you the Zoom invite and you can hop right on. Actually it’s not Zoom I use Google Meet because Zoom you have to pay for and I do not have one of those special memberships. So we made the jump. I’m also open to people’s suggestions if they want to read something else. The Fire Next Time is the second book club we’ve done. The very first was Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde. I had people vote on Instagram, and then I asked when we had the discussion for Audre Lorde, I asked the people who were there what they wanted to read next and they said The Fire Next Time. I always leave it up to the people involved.
Josh: What inspired this library project? What pushed you to start the initiative?
Brandon: Well I’m a reader and also I work in social work and I study Buddhism. A lot of things that were important to me, I’m able to do with this project. And loving the Bronx so much, being born and raised here, for the longest time we didn’t have a bookstore and what does that say about our relationship with reading? I’m only one man, so I thought how could I help that? I had some extra books myself and if you talk to someone who reads they almost always have copies of something they’re not reading anymore. It’s been pretty well received. At the end of the day it’s still pretty DIY, just a couple crates of books. Somedays I put three though, nothing crazy. Anyone could do it but I’ve been consistent with it and proved that something small can have an impact.
Chris: Speaking about the drought of bookstores in the Bronx, honestly the Bay Plaza Barnes and Noble was the spot for me and when it closed it was heartbreaking. How do you feel about places like The Lit. Bar and other bookshops popping up to fill some of that space in the Bronx?
Brandon: I think it’s a complicated thing, because in addition to Barnes and Noble when I was a kid there was one on Grand Concourse and my mom bought me Harry Potter for Christmas one year there. It was the size of a bowling alley and it still could not survive. Thank goodness we still have libraries, I used to go to them all the time growing up. Unfortunately now with COVID they are in question and understandably so. That’s why I’m happy to help in my own way but we still need these institutions. I embrace these institutions as well, they’re wonderful things. As far as Lit. Bar, more power to her, she’s a woman of color with her own business holding it down. However, I have noticed she’s dealt with different real estate companies and other companies in the South Bronx that want to rebrand the South Bronx as the piano district and things like that. That I do not support at all. I do not root for her downfall at all, but at the same time we must be mindful of who we’re dealing with. I know that I am privileged because I’m not a business so I do not have to pay staff or rent or any of these things. I just give people used books. Sometimes new books when I raise the money but I have very little overhead, if any. I think that’s also given me a lot of freedom because I don’t have any masters.
Josh: A used book is just as dope as a new book.
Brandon: Exactly. When you think about the poor trees we are giving these books second, third, fourth lives now. This has been rewarding to me because on an environmental standard reusing materials, and then we’re educating people, we’re getting people reading. And it’s right here on Gun Hill Road. The Bronx has had its reputation for the last 50 years or so. On any given weekend people are picking up a book for free and at the bodega we have a sandwich named after the project and it’s a vegetarian sandwich and I’m not a vegetarian anymore but look that’s two positive things happening right on Gun Hill Road: people eating vegetarian and people reading a book for the family. I’m very happy with what it is.
Josh: What’s one book you’d want to recommend to the GSC readers?
Brandon: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, that one was really good. Also really enjoyed The Fatal Skin by Honore de Balzac. That was a good one. Basically he’s a writer and he’s feeling really suicidal, and he decides he’s gonna kill himself but doesn’t want to make a big production about it so he’s gonna just drown himself in the evening. There’s a public reservoir or lake or something like that. He spends the whole day leading up to that going to different museums and galleries, just taking it all in. He strikes up conversation with a shopmaster while he’s looking at some stuff and he tells the guy he wants to kill himself. So the guy’s like “Oh word?” and gives him this chagrin skin type of thing that grants any wish you can, but it takes a little bit of your life when you make a wish. But it can grant any wish. It’s really interesting to watch someone who felt like he had nothing to live for doing anything he can to try to live. But also thinking about what have I really done with this life. Balzac is really smooth with the words. It was really good. Água Viva by Clarice Lispector. Also White Teeth by Zadie Smith. That one was a little bit of a fancier Oscar Wao for me. It was different families over generations and also there was the Jehovah’s Witness family as well. Paul Beatty is really funny, I’ve read The Sellout, he was really good. Right now I’m reading I Don’t Wanna Die Poor by Michael Arceneaux. Calypso by David Sedaris is really good. The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion by Thich Nhat Hanh, An African American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz, and Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde.
Chris: How do you pick the spots where you set up shop?
Brandon: I was originally from the Fordham area 184th and Marion, but we’ve lived on Gun Hill Road since 2008. Now I have my own place but my mom’s on a different floor in the same building. I wanted something close enough so that I can go check on it in and out if I want to, so I wasn’t going to do Bedford Park or Fordham because I live in Norwood. So I want an area that was busy but not too busy but also an area where I had a relationship with a businesses nearby. There’s an area on Gun Hill Road between Bainbridge and Wayne where there’s a bodega, pharmacy, and pizza spot and I have relationships with the people at the pizza shop and the bodega. At the bodega at first they would watch the crates for me when I wasn’t around, because sometimes people would fuck with them when it was very new. They would watch it and occasionally when it would rain they would bring it inside. They were actually very happy with the project and they liked it a lot. And then the pizza shop owner was eventually like this is really cool, they were very supportive as well. When we did the giveaway with The Alchemist, me, Annie Legnini, and my friend Delia set up right outside the pizza shop that day and gave out 30 copies of The Alchemist, 15 in English and 15 in Spanish. We also did face painting and music, it was cool. It was a very happy afternoon.
Josh: Where do you fall in the debate about dead white authors aka “the classics” versus updating curriculum to be more POC focused in schools?
Brandon: I think we do need to update. At the same time there are books that, for example, I love George Orwell. I go to Shakespeare in the Park every year. Those guys are awesome too. However, they have been shoved down our throats for too long. We need an update, for example I never read any James Baldwin until I was a grown man. That would have been very powerful for me to read in high school. I’m sure a lot of people would agree with that in their lives. At the book club recently people are like “I wish I would have read this when I was younger.” He’s got a lot of things to say and I think he stands up against any of these old white guys. I haven’t read as much Angela Davis as I would like but these are also voices we need to be hearing. Children and young people are the fabric of our society so why not institute anti-racist education in these canons to focus on more people of color because they deserve to hear their voices as well. And they’re also academics and intellectuals. To me the update is long overdue.
Chris: What types of books do you look for in your exchange program? Are you looking for something specific? Is there something really popular that people are looking for?
Brandon: I’ll say that I am working on this one particular initiative. During the week I work for CUNY in partnership with ACS. A colleague came to me after a meeting about providing the youth at a juvenile detention center with books. The genres they are most interested in are manga/anime, urban fiction. I’m all about meeting people where they’re at. Unless it’s like Atlas Shrugged I’m not going to judge what you’re reading [laughs]. If it’s comic books I’ll meet you there. It’s a great gateway to get you to read other stuff. I’ve been working on getting manga and anime books for these youth, and I think in the next couple weeks we’re gonna be visiting and I’ve gathered a bunch, but if anyone has some manga anime that they don’t mind parting with you can give it directly to these youth at the detention center. Let’s broaden their horizons, let’s get them interested in reading. People could give them a dry Shakespeare book and that has its merits but it’s not what they want to read right now. Let’s meet them where they’re at and get them some manga anime and urban fiction, and who knows maybe there’s a great writer in there and doesn’t know it yet. Also this is so early in their lives, they have a chance to rise back up from whatever it is they’re going through, their lives are not over. Education is such a phenomenal intervention. That’s one thing I’m working on with a coworker. Also, I’m always looking for books in Spanish. I live in a very Hispanic neighborhood, so whenever I have books in Spanish it’s a plus. I also always like to highlight antiracist education. Also writers associated with the Bronx. I like to post on painters tape in the neighborhood with quotes from writers from the Bronx to get them thinking a little bit. So I’ve used people like James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Edgar Allen Poe, Toni Morrison. She died in the Bronx actually, she died in Montefiore. I’ve put some of her stuff around.
Books for kids in general. With COVID, the libraries are closed, schools are closed, and those books have actually been flying the past few weeks whenever I’m out. It’s beautiful but at the same time depressing. It’s beautiful that I’m able to help but at the same time highlighting a bigger issue. If you have a book you really like that you want someone else to read, I’ll put it in there. We did a giveaway for Animal Farm, in English and Spanish. We also did a giveaway for 1984. We’ve gotten the neighborhood into George Orwell which feels really cool. We also did a giveaway for The Alchemist, and I got my mom to read The Alchemist. She cried. And she never would have read it if I hadn’t suggested it. I do like sitting by the crates but I also miss the mystery of people walking up with the crates and picking up something and then being like “I’m gonna take a chance on this.” For example, a stranger that walked up and saw a copy of The Alchemist. Like what kind of experience is that? I’m jealous a little bit because it’s a powerful book.
Josh: What’s one thing you learned about books/literacy during this initiative? What’s one thing you learned about yourself?
Brandon: A lot of people believe that they can’t even finish a book. I think that anyone is capable of doing that, but it can be intimidating. I think that also I am appreciative of the praise but there’s still more to be done because people are not reading. They have given up on their own intellectual curiosity as they got older or many people are just disinterested in books. Don’t get me wrong, TV and video games are lit, I enjoy it as well. But at the same time there’s something to be appreciative of reading a book, the battery does not run out and these distractions dull our critical thinking skills, and so people are a lot more susceptible for different bendings of the truth by whatever people are in power. It’s a systemic win if you don’t read actually. I’m very passionate about empowering others so something I learned about me is doing this makes me happy. I was very lost for a while until I was working in social work and doing this. Any random gig I could get was still very difficult because I had no idea what I wanted. I feel like that’s the difficulty with trying to figure out your career. You’re supposed to pay for your different needs, find meaning, and track your career. It’s a very difficult process. Those lost years were an education themselves, I got to learn what was important to me. This is important to me, helping out my community is important to me, helping people empower themselves, helping people empower others. Helping people realize that if there’s a cause they’re passionate about there’s something they could do about it. You don’t have to drop everything and start big LLC or nonprofit. You can get together with some friends, raise the money or pool in your own money, and get a bunch of copies of one particular book or maybe some food. And that afternoon you helped out your neighborhood. It can be as simple as that. And that can still have a huge impact.
Chris: What are some of the biggest obstacles you faced in running this initiative?
Brandon: Well right now the weather. Because of COVID I sit by the crates now, but eventually it’s gonna be too brick so I’ll be having book club discussions every few weeks. I’m very open to any suggestions on a book as well from people who want to get involved. If it’s above 45 degrees I can sit out there, but you know New York. I’m hoping for one of those weekends where it’s like 60 degrees and I’ll run right outside with the books. Weather is my biggest obstacle right now. One time a dog did pee on the books. I wasn’t there for that, that’s when I didn’t sit by the crates the whole time. At the very beginning one guy said he was gonna call the cops on me for doing this. I said “What am I doing that’s wrong?” and he said it was illegal. It’s not illegal though, I’m not a business or anything like that. And I do have permission from people on the block to hang out here with my books. I also won him over, now he stops by and says hello. It was just too new of an idea and he didn’t know what was going on. He was like what the hell is this. I looked it up and giving out books, I’m not violating anything. I’m not collecting money. And I haven’t really needed money. I do raise money to buy plastic for the books now as well as gloves and I’ve started giving out masks to people if they pass by without one. Shit is real out here, what are you doing, but also maybe you don’t have access to a mask so I’ll give you one.
Josh: Is anyone ever like “fuck you” when you try to give them a mask?
Brandon: Yeah recently twice. This one woman did not wear a mask or gloves and insisted that I Lysoled the book before I gave it to her. I did that. No mask, no gloves but I had to Lysol the book before I handed it to her. Recently I asked a guy why he wasn’t wearing a mask and he said I don’t need one. And I said well I’ll give you one, but he just pulled his hoodie up while he was talking to me. I gave him a book he was interested in, and I would have given him a mask if he wanted one. I have a sign that says free books but I also just chat with people and say free books, and sometimes people look at me like I have three heads. Which is fine, it’s like who does something for free? But I do.
Josh: Is there any way people can contribute to this initiative that you’ve created?
Brandon: Yes. There’s a link on the Instagram called “Buy Me a Coffee” if you wanna buy me a coffee. Or money for plastic and stuff like that. Every now and then I start GoFundMe’s to raise money for book giveaways. February 14th I’m gonna be giving away copies of All About Love by bell hooks. Love isn’t just romantic love, it’s also caring and it’s an action. I wanna reopen people’s ideas of what love is. I’ll probably do a book club for that as well.
Chris: Is the collection of manga anime an ongoing thing or is there an end to that?
Brandon: I don’t know actually, it depends on how it’s received the first time.
Chris: What are your long term plans for the book exchange program?
Brandon: I have thought about this. On one hand I like keeping it small because I can stop and then bring it back whenever I want. But on the other hand, I’m working on heading back to school to become a therapist. So if I had a place one day where I could have a therapy practice but in addition to that have free books available and also perhaps some free classes that would be amazing. That would be pie in the sky. In the Bronx.
Josh: What have you been doing to take care of your mental health during this COVID-19 pandemic?
Brandon: Trying to limit how much news I watch. I stay away from cable news completely. I don’t want CNN or Fox. I do watch PBS NewsHour. I’m an old man, I watch PBS NewsHour every night. I’m an old man at heart but also I like that they’re more about the story and less about the spin on there. They have a story on there about people who have died during COVID, they have a story at the end. It makes me cry but at the same time these are important stories to hear because I feel like we run the risk of just looking at it as numbers like “this many people dead.” But these are actual lives and it makes me want to be careful as well because people are so anti-mask but I don’t think they’re really thinking about the real lives lost. I meditate as well, with a temple on 231st street on Zoom. We do meditation every week. I listen to a lot of lectures by Thich Nhat Hanh as well, it’s very calming. Appreciating my family too, and my friends but my family is in my same bubble so I see them a lot more.
A few weeks after the interview on January 9th, 2021, we went to the Norwood event in collaboration with The Fridge Girls, Ceremony Cerebellum, and Bag the Bronx. Giving out free books, including copies of How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, and free food, the event was a neighborhood hit with many passersby stopping to check. Norwood’s collection of Buddhist literature was a highlight that Montes proudly shared with us. Showing us books of mindfulness, it made sense that Montes would be giving his neighbors access to documented positive mental health resources.
Follow Brandon on IG, The Norwood Community Library on Twitter and IG, buy him a coffee here, donate to his new book and food drive for this Spring, and pick up a book, any book. It’s fun! Article cover photo created by Rich Fabian.