One of the easiest ways to travel to a new place this summer is by cracking a new – or new-to-you – book. Little Free Libraries make it even easier, providing donated books free of charge. These treasure chests of information are a common sight in the Driftless – it’s not unheard of to stumble across several within one small community. But in La Crosse, Wisconsin, the library comes to you.
“I remember seeing Little Free Libraries around Red Wing, Minnesota, and thinking it was a cool idea,” says Terri Wolfgram, who lived in Red Wing, before moving to La Crosse in 2007. Inspired by Portland, Oregon’s Street Books, a mobile lending library that delivers books to people living on the streets via a Haley Tricycle – a large tricycle that is built to transport hundreds of pounds of cargo within a sturdy, lidded, lockable box – Terri decided to take the idea on the road, creating Paperback Rider, a mobile Little Free Library.
In 2018, Terri headed out with a large basket for her own regular bike, some books from her house, and a Little Free Library mobile charter number. She set up in Riverside Park in downtown La Crosse on April 12, and continued to pedal to local parks throughout that year, keeping track of how many books she gave out along the way. By the end of 2018, it was a total of 485 books.
“I live in a neighborhood where a lot of people struggle,” says Terri. “When kids get books from me, I let them know that they can keep it, give it to a friend, or leave it in any Little Free Library.”
Terri began stocking up on books at yard sales and places like the clearance shelf at Goodwill. Then Mario Youakim from Beer By Bike Brigade (a group that started out organizing once-a-month summer bar hops on bikes in La Crosse and grew to host and support a variety of events and fundraisers for the community) shared Terri’s efforts on social media and the large book donations started rolling in from both individuals and businesses and organizations.
“Eddy at Driftless Books in Viroqua, Wisconsin, gives me children’s books whenever I visit. Beth from Pearl Street Books in La Crosse has books for me whenever I ask, and Rick and Zoe at Fair Trade Books in Red Wing, Minnesota, have given me books, as well,” says Terri.
She soon realized that her operation needed a larger carrying capacity. Terri purchased a trailer and her husband built a box that could be opened for display, but the resulting rig was a bit cumbersome and tended to tip. After completing the debut season of Paperback Rider in November of 2018, Terri started a GoFundMe to raise money for the ultimate dream: A custom Haley Tricycle book bike.
That dream came true in May of 2019 when the current Paperback Rider book bike arrived. That year Terri gave away 980 books while pedaling through La Crosse.
Although Paperback Rider offers books of all reading levels to people of all ages, Terri says she definitely goes through children’s books the quickest.
Early on in the Paperback Rider journey, Terri had one of her favorite experiences to-date at Poage Park, which is the closest park to Terri’s home.
“As I got there, there were several kids in the street, some with bikes. The oldest was maybe 13. They were talking about someone and swearing. I set up and they moved on,” she explains.“Then two of the younger ones came over to see what I was selling. I told them I had free books and asked if they would each like one…
Eventually, they each took a book and went over to the steps on the play equipment. Soon, I could hear the younger one reading No, David! by David Shannon, out loud to his friend.”
Then 2020 and COVID put a hold on Paperback Rider, as it did with most things.
“I only went out once in 2020 to a friend’s yard where the neighboring daycare lady came over with two kids at a time,” explains Terri. “I gave out 14 books.”
But on May 22, 2021, Terri was two weeks past her second COVID vaccination and ready to take the bike back out to Poage Park and beyond. Later that same summer, she decided to take her regular bike to Houska Park every Tuesday to offer books to the homeless community there (a tradition she now continues). At the end of 2021, Terri had given out a total of 771 books.
Building community through books and reading is something that comes naturally to Terri, as her own mother was a voracious reader who passed that on to her daughter.
“She grew up during the Great Depression and wasn’t able to finish high school. She also didn’t get to travel until her later years, but she knew so much about so many things/places because she was a reader,” explains Terri. “Even though money was tight, there were always newspapers, magazines, and books in our house. I also visited the library regularly.”
For Terri reading is also a way to honor the memory of her father, who passed away from multiple sclerosis when she was in kindergarten – the same year she learned to read.
“In elementary school, the MS Read-a-Thon was a thing,” she says. “I looked forward to that every year, because I could raise money doing something I loved AND help fight the disease that took my dad.”
Terri tries to have Paperback Rider in action each year from April to October, with a set weekly schedule and regular spots, although the weather doesn’t always cooperate. Up-to-date information is posted on the Paperback Rider website: www.paperbackrider.org and social media pages.
Earlier in 2022, Paperback Rider officially became a non-profit organization – a process that began in early 2021.
“There was a lot of paperwork and I had to assemble a board,” explains Terri. “I’m hoping to get one ore two more volunteer board members at some point. We started meeting virtually even before the non-profit status was granted, just to toss ideas around.”
The non-profit status streamlines the fundraising process. Contributions to support Paperback Rider can be made on their website, where Paperback Rider shirts and hoodies can also be purchased. Terri acquired a canopy tent and tables so Paperback Rider can take books to events that are outside the riding area, and she has big dreams for the future of the non-profit.
“I have some other ideas that I’m working on,” adds Terri, “including getting each third grader at my neighborhood school a new book. Eventually, I’d love to give a new book to every third grader in La Crosse each year.”
Through Paperback Rider, Terri has found a way to combine her love of books, bikes, and kids, all while giving back to the people in her community, especially the kids. Terri has seen firsthand how reading at a young age can open up a whole new world, and foster lifelong friendships. Back in Paperback Rider’s first year, Terri met three boys at Poage Park who would all take books each time she saw them. One child in particular, “Z,” often chatted with Terri while she was at the park. Z is now 15, and he and Terri still keep in touch.
“One day, Z and I were sitting on the picnic table when a girl came over. She asked what I was selling and I explained that I had free books. She looked for a bit, then looked at Z and asked, ‘Is she your mom?’ Z said, ‘No.’ The girl asked, ‘Well, who is she?!’ Z looked at me, paused, looked at her and said, ‘She’s my friend.’”