Mavis the Magical Bookmobile

Anna Kongs and her ambulance-turned-nonprofit-bookmobile are on a mission to get books into the hands of some of Denver’s most disadvantaged citizens.

By Sonia Christensen | Photos by Giles Clasen

Anna Kongs drives Mavis the Magical Bookmobile through Denver. Credit: Giles clasen

About a year and a half ago, Anna Kongs got the idea for Mavis the Magical Bookmobile. She was newly enrolled in library school but didn’t want to wait to complete her degree to get books into the hands of people who needed them. So she flew to Boston, bought a secondhand ambulance, drove it back to Colorado, and renamed it Mavis. 

Credit: Michael EllisMavis is, according to Kongs, a nonprofit bookmobile—a means to get books into the hands of those who can’t afford them. 

“The reason that I wanted to become a librarian is because I believe in free, unfettered access to information,” she said. She sees the bookmobile as a resource to provide that kind of access, especially in areas that are considered book deserts.

Mavis the Magical Bookmobile packs books into bays once used to store medical supplies. Credit: Giles CasenThe term “book desert” is relatively new and amorphous. Director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom and the Freedom to Read Foundation James LaRue defines a book desert as “a home with fewer than 25 books in it.” Bright Star Books, a nonprofit organization that works to increase book ownership in the northeast Ohio region, defines a book desert as “a geographic area that lacks consistent access to high-quality, affordable, print children’s books.” Kongs defines it as “an area that has no bookstores, no libraries, no little free libraries, just no resources.” To her, regardless of definition, the important thing is to make books available in these areas.

According to Kongs, in Colorado many of the places that would be considered book deserts are in rural areas, but for now, she plans to focus on parts of the metro area where books are scarce.

Credit: Giles ClasenMavis is not the only bookmobile in Denver. In 2009, Denver Public Library launched its Reading Rocket bookmobiles. Kongs believes she can expand on that idea. “The Reading Rockets mainly go to schools and old folks homes. I will be taking their routes into consideration when I create my own,” she said.

Creating a route that places her in other areas that need more access to books is central to Kongs’ plan for the upcoming year, during which she hopes to have the bookmobile open in one of these areas two to three times a week. 

So far, Kongs has been taking Mavis on what she calls trial runs. She’s had Mavis open at literary events in the metro area, and has been acquiring books. “Most of my books are donated,” she said, “I fill gaps by hitting up thrift stores and garage sales but most of them come from friends and just by word of mouth. I have people contacting me all the time now.” Kongs used a GoFundMe campaign to help get Mavis started, but otherwise the project has been entirely funded by her.

The bookmobile currently works on what Kongs describes as a pay-as-you-feel basis, which means that the customer decides the price. “When I first started, I thought I’d charge three to five dollars a book, and then I decided to ask people to pay as they felt, just to see. People are paying five, ten, fifteen, twenty dollars a book, which is way more than I thought they’d pay.”

Kongs has yet to set her permanent bookmobile routes. She spent the 2016 summer on trial runs to develop the practices she will use as her nonprofit develops. Credit: Giles ClasenHowever, Kongs by no means expects everyone to pay that much, especially in areas of concentrated poverty. “Even if I just get a dollar for a book, that book was free for me and I can buy two more with that dollar somewhere else, so it works out. When you say to someone ‘what is this worth to you’—whether they give you a twenty-dollar bill or one dollar, that’s still worth something to them.”

Kongs’ goal is to eventually give all books away for free, but how soon she will be able to do that will depend on funding.

“I do give children’s books away for free,” said Kongs. She also plans to include areas frequented by homeless people on her future routes, and will give books away in those spots as well. “I already give books away at events if people can’t afford a book or just don’t have money on them. Payment is never mandatory,” said Kongs.

Kongs hopes that the access to cheap or free books that Mavis provides will foster independent learning in those that frequent the bookmobile. “I think people should find what they’re passionate about and learn on their own. You learn better when you actually want to learn something, not when it’s being forced down your throat.”

Ultimately, Kongs hopes that Mavis the Magical Bookmobile will improve the lives of those that frequent the bookmobile. “Another reaction I’ve gotten from people is ‘oh I always looked forward to my bookmobile coming to my neighborhood.’ You just hear all these stories of it being a huge impact on people’s lives, so I’m just hoping it can be that for someone, somewhere.”