Published in The Age - 13 March 2010
On a hot February evening we drove into a narrow street behind the Town Hall in Fitzroy. High above us along the ridge on the slate roof of a ancient bluestone church were strung, at regular intervals, like pearls on a necklace, seventeen seagulls, facing east, their backs to the setting sun. They were waiting for pickings. Down below, a crowd was gathering around two white Vinnies vans, one van giving away sandwiches the other dispensing free soup, coffee and cordial. I was with the people in the red car behind the vans, the car with a boot full of books. We would stop here for half an hour, offering free books to homeless and disadvantaged people.
While people surged forward to the vans, we put down a rug on the pavement and placed on it rows of books and magazines. A Chinese grandfather brought over his folding chair and gathered up some of the Chinese books for himself, smiling broadly, sipping coffee from a polystyrene cup. One man, disappointed that there was no dictionary on the rug, ordered one for next week. The books are free to take away, like the food. This is the Footpath Library, an initiative of the Lauriston Girls’ School Community Service Program.
Every Sunday night two members of the school staff follow the Vinnies vans which make six stops at key locations around inner Melbourne. Books are collected from members of the school community, and are stored in the school library – nine shelves where the books, in excellent condition, are stacked three deep. My journey began at the school library. As a book-lover I was dazed by the sight of the tightly packed spines on the shelves – Minette Walters, Gabrielle Lord, Ruth Rendell, Dean Koontz, Sydney Sheldon. There’s also a huge collection of biography and non-fiction, which is the most popular category with clients of the Footpath Library. And several shelves of books in Chinese. A regular contributor to the supply is Bayside Library Services; one large donation of books came from the State Library of Victoria. We put eight shopping bags of already selected books into the boot of the car in preparation for the night’s work.
The Footpath Library began when a Sydney woman, Sarah Garnett, was working as a volunteer, serving meals to homeless and disadvantaged people, and started bringing along books for distribution. This small gesture has developed in other cities to become part of the services on which homeless and disadvantaged people rely for sustenance and comfort. Joan Hammonds, the librarian at Lauriston, is the force behind the Melbourne Footpath Library, which has been operating for two years.
My journey continued in North Melbourne where the two Vinnies vans were stocking up. The six regular volunteers, led by long-timers, Norm and Manfred, wore fluorescent orange vests with the blue logo on the back. The 1,500 sandwiches are made from donated bread, with fillings such as tuna, ham, cheese, vegemite. Our first stop was on the edge of a North Melbourne park, and as we drew up a dozen or so clients drifted into view, some with their dogs, making first for the food and coffee, then over to the striped rug where we had placed the books from one of the shopping bags in the boot. This is not a grand operation – the rug is small and displays maybe fifteen books. Joan is quite familiar with the clientele at each stop, and so each bag is filled with things designed to interest them. Magazines such as New Scientist and National Geographic were popular here. There was some discussion over the merits of a book on war by Winston Churchill.
The books lie on the rug, face up, shiny coloured invitations to other worlds. The light is beginning to fade, the empty polystyrene cups are beginning to blow and bowl along the road. A few books have gone. Pack up the vans, the car, drive off. The clients linger by the wire fence to the park, but when I look back, they have dissolved into the pink dusk.
The drive to the Fitzroy Town Hall takes us past the Zoo, the dry parklands where birds are twittering loudly, round College Crescent. The towers of the university halls of residence speak not only of learning and books but also of warmth and community and home. We concentrate on being simply practical, not sentimental, with our car full of books, but there is a temptation to philosophize as we sail along past the have-a-lots on our way to the have-no-muches.
After the Fitzroy Town Hall we head for Hanover House in Southbank. The lights in St Patrick’s glow amber in the twilight as we zip past on our way to a street behind Crown Casino. Again it is easy to wonder about the distinctions, this time between the pulse and glitter of Crown and the quiet dignified gathering of people, two of them in wheelchairs, standing in the pool of light outside the crisis accommodation of Hanover House. We spread out our wares on the red and grey rug. A woman pounces with delight on Boris Starling’s thriller Vodka, provoking mirth among the company. She takes a couple of other things, and I talk her into taking Kay Cottee’s First Lady. Again the New Scientist and National Geographic are winners.
Next stop is a narrow lane where we park behind buildings, and a few people appear out of the shadows to get their meal and talk among themselves. This lot is not interested in books. But then we get to Flinders Street Station, and like children waiting for the circus, the people are sitting in a long line on the ledge of the stone foundations. One of the regulars is a woman “Annette” who says she has so many books in her room that her landlady has warned her not to bring back any more. Nothing daunted, she picks up a Ruth Rendell, but puts it back saying she already has it. She is thrilled with the autobiography of Barrie Humphries. I think she took about six books to add to her overflowing collection. Two novels by Iain Banks – severe black and white covers – attract the attention of two young men, but then they put them back. This is a busy gathering with a considerable feeling of camaraderie. It feels less isolated, more part of its surroundings, than the other stops. Annette spies a history of the Boy Scouts and gleefully carries it off.
Last stop a street by the Victoria Market where there are just a few people in need of soup and sandwiches, a magazine, a thriller and some conversation. All over until next Sunday.