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Where You Are Is Where This Library Goes: The Mellow Pages guide to starting a user-sourced library/reading room

mellowboysSo in case you don’t shake the rain out of your New York Times or anything, let me introduce Mellow Pages to you.

Mellow Pages is a sweet new community-sourced library, reading room, and gathering spot for readers/writers, started by two gnarly beardboys from the Pacific Northwest—Matt Nelson and Jacob Perkins, at left—in a chill and genius way.

You can find it on Tumblr and Facebook and Goodreads and Instagram. Mellow Pages lives on Bogart St. off the Morgan L stop in Brooklyn, NY, but that shouldn’t stop you from letting its idea live everywhere.

Because what Jacob and Matt have done is written up a guide (Jacob writing, Matt editing) to making your own very 2013 library/reading room wherever you might live.

Ever since I heard about Mellow Pages, I’ve felt impressed not only by its duh-that’s-a-great-idea quality, but also by how cleanly and smartly and warmly Matt and Jacob have executed their idea. They’ve provided a non-academic space where readers can stroll in and sample all that weird shit they read about on the internet in a tangible, welcoming, human, affordable way. A curated library and reading room offers a model that doesn’t sub out public libraries or independent bookstores but instead supplements and supports them; the guide talks/thinks more about this relationship between bookstores/libraries/etc. What I want to say is that Mellow Pages’ living room gallery/house show/come-one-come-all/zine culture vibe really appeals to me and feels consistent with what I think of as independent literature’s better angels.

The walls of Mellow Pages are speckled with portrait-style books facing cover-out, all donated by patrons/presses/authors and handpicked for display; the atmosphere has nice couches and coffee; it’s small enough that you can’t be a timid shypants but cozy enough that you don’t feel spooked. And it has an elegant Goodreads-based system for keeping track of what they have, what they want, and where all the donations have come from.

So of course when I asked Matt and Jacob if they felt like writing up a guide to “mellow paging,” they were like: “We don’t call it that because that sounds dumb, Mike, and actually, wouldn’t you know it, we just wrote up a really comprehensive guide for our friends in Portland and our friends at  Paper Darts in Minneapolis.” They are that on the ball, Matt and Jacob are. The ball is mossy and you can eat it for emergency lunch. So HTMLGIANT is very happy to share this guide with you on behalf of Mellow Pages. You can find it in full at this public Google Document: Where You Are Is Where This Library Goes.

I’m not joking when I say it’s comprehensive. If you’re feeling energetic and wishing your town had a Mellow Pages-style spot, and you feel like you could do it but you’re not sure how, this guide will seriously put you in a well-what-are-you-waiting-for position. The guide covers space acquisition, funding, building/designing your library, dealing with the internet, acquiring books, checkout and membership models, sanity maintenance, events, and community interaction. Download this guide, print it out, get together with your friends, make shit happen.

  • —> Go to Google Docs for the FULL AND MOST READABLE AND CONSTANTLY UPDATED VERSION OF THE GUIDE
  • —> Below the jump you will find A SHORTENED HTMLGIANT EXCLUSIVE MAY 26th EDITION of the guide with a bunch of pictures I added from the Mellow Pages Facebook feed.
  • —> I repeat: FULL AND MOST READABLE/SHARABLE GUIDE ON GOOGLE DOCS /// FACEBOOK PICTURES AND HIGHLIGHTS BELOW THE JUMP

Where You Are Is Where This Library Goes
a blueprint sourced by mellow pages library to be used and distributed by all inclined parties as property of the public domain

WRITTEN BY: — Jacob Perkins —, co-founder of mellow pages library & reading room, May 14, 2013


FOREWORD:

You are in possession of a guide for building a user-sourced library in your community. Use this guide and its contents as you wish, with one request: within your model will always be an option for members to involve themselves free of charge. This is not a “business plan”. You should make every effort to run your library without profit. This plan can be implemented in your apartment, at your place of business or in a shared community space like a garden, park or cultural center. Ideally, a space will be acquired for the specific purpose of running a user-sourced library.

IMPETUS:

Because you can, no one else will, and you believe in supporting writers and small publishers.

ON LOCATION:

Create your library in a location that is suitable and easy to access. “Suitable” may pertain to any number of categories, including but not limited to “safe”, “large enough” and/or “comfortable”. The definitions of these terms will vary from region to region, so make these judgements to the best of your ability. For most urban-to-suburban areas, neighborhoods in which public transportation exist and are close by will produce the best conditions for your library to thrive and provide a service to your community.

ON DOING IT IN YOUR HOUSE:

If you plan to start a library in your home, apartment or the home of your parents, keep in mind that you will need to have “open hours” which can be as few or as many hours of the week as you desire. In our case, we are open seven days a week for eight hours a day. If this is not possible, that is okay. Do what you can. Keep in mind that your space will become a “public” space during these times and prepare for that accordingly. This will make it easy for members to return and check out books in a sustainable manner.

ON LIVING IN YOUR LIBRARY:

The cost of running a library like this does not need to exceed the cost of rent. If you are in a commercial space and require a separate “living” space, and the cost of the two make the project intangible, consider living in your library. If you are considering starting a library in your “living” space, make sure to either be “under the radar” or let your landlord/parents/roommates know.

ON NON-PROFIT VS. NO-PROFIT STATUS:

Becoming a non-profit is a possibility that expands your range of grant opportunities, but it is key to remember that becoming a non-profit is a full-time task in and of itself. Be prepared to compromise if you take this path. We’ve opted to stay as a non-registered “No Profit”, mainly because the project doesn’t need to be more complicated than it already is.

ON FUNDRAISING:

There are ways to raise funds within the community supportive of your project. Holding events related to funding the space should be considered healthy, if not necessary. If people feel you are providing something to them, be willing to accept donations. These are not donations to YOU. Make sure you don’t use library funds for personal gain. People will trust you. They are how you continue the service you are providing. A donation should be considered one of the highest compliments you can receive.

Some venues to ask for aid are: throw a party, a reading, a book signing/release or show a film and provide drinks for a small donation. This will clearly be a donation to the cause, and will also provide people with drinks and entertainment. So long as you make back the money you spent on the drinks, you are free to keep the rest as a donation. You can also ask for donations without providing anything except the fact that you are running a space that people want to exist.

ON MEMBERSHIP FEES:

Although models of operation will be explained further herein, keep in mind that a donation can be asked for membership. Of course, if a prospective member wishes to loan books to the collection, they will be doing so for inclusion to the library and will not be asked to provide a monetary donation. This is the one request we ask to remain unchanged in your model. The loaning of books should be encouraged over paid membership, but in the case of a prospective member who may not have or wish to contribute books to the collection, a donation is acceptable and necessary for the liability of the other books in the collection. This portion of your funding will not likely ever exceed the cost of the rent, but if it does, know that your own community is funding the space, and be sure to give back as much as possible if you surpass the profit margin. We spend our profits on buying books at small press book readings.

ON VIBES:

You should try and create a type of space that lends to conversation, inclusion and interaction while providing enough seating to house up to ten visitors during regular library hours, assuming they are all browsing and reading. It seems likely you’ll need a desk or designated area for the person operating the space on a given day. This will help when first time visitors arrive and would like to know more about how your space functions. They will see you and know you are the person to talk to. Though it is not important to establish any air of holier-than-thou ownership or enforcement.

If you have the funds, provide coffee, food or anything else you would assume to be “nice”. Music can be a good way to set the right tone in the space.

ON BOOK DISPLAY:

The cheapest, most practical way to display your books also happens to be the most visually dynamic. You will need a few boxes of nails. The best style of nail is a siding nail, which is thin and will leave the least amount of damage. Buy nails that are at least 3.5” so that you can place them deep enough into the wall to hold the weight of the book while enough length remains to hold a book up to 2.5” in width. Two nails placed about three inches apart, level, will get the job done.

Displaying books in this way, with their covers facing out instead of the spine, allows browsers to consider the art featured on the cover as well as the title and author quite easily, depending on the design of the book. Don’t go about your process of placement with much deliberation. Be aware that you’ll run out of space somewhat quickly on your wall, and try to make your placements in a way that has the most density. But don’t bother making specific “lines” of books or specific spaces that pertain to a specific book. These books WILL be checked out, taken down, flipped through and moved. Consider each bookspace as one that will contain any number of different copies through time.

Displaying in this way creates a challenge to the browser. It forces them to consider each book as a separate item, and will undoubtedly draw their attention to something new each time. If they had a specific book they were searching for, this method of display forces them to consider others.

ON YOUR ONLINE “CHARACTER”:

Perhaps the most entertaining part of running a “space” page is that it is not “you”. This is the newest opportunity the Internet provides to libraries: a “character”. Do whatever you want with this. Captions, photos and general comments can be in a fictional character. An author, even. Make your library like the cool older brother/sister you always wished you’d had. Be vulgar, offensive, overtly nice, whatever. Just don’t verbally harm any specific person. The opportunity is to make your library something that people think of as personal and friendly. This begins to change the way people interact with literature altogether. Imagine that for a minute. And then act.

ON CURATORIAL PRACTICES:

Curating your collection, without a doubt, will become the most important practice you engage in once you start fielding donations. Your curatorial process can be looked at as a method of affecting the reading tendencies in your community. This kind of thing takes time. You will get a glimpse at the reading tendencies already present in your community by what people wish to include in the collection. It’s not likely you’ll get exactly what you want right away, but you are responsible for what you accept. The fact that there is only a certain amount of books you can hold should give you reason enough to turn down some things.

If you have a mission, let people know before they bring in donations. You’d be surprised what people already have. In our case, we were looking to stock the library with books you could not find anywhere else. We were looking for zines, chapbooks, independently pressed books and philosophy. And people had them, in masses. Know that people will bring in junk if you don’t inform them what you want. Of course, it’s not like everyone has the ideal books to offer, but if they at least try and are made aware, the donations do become better. Without a goal, you’re left with How-To books and dollar store stuff. Not useful except for the person trying to unload before they move. For this reason you’ll have to decide and/or develop what it is you’re trying to do with your library.

We would suggest that the only “real” function of a private library like this is to provide exactly the things a traditional library does not. Otherwise your necessity is debatable.

ON ASKING FOR BOOKS AND CAPITALISM:

What has made our library successful is the participation of presses we were interested in. Our route was one of asking ourselves, “What books could we only dream of having in here?” That’s an important thing to do. Ask. What inspires you? What we found is that, more inspiring than the work, is providing an outlet for supporting that work. Independent presses have very, very low readership in comparison to national bestsellers. Which is unfortunate, because they put out some of the most challenging, unique work. This is in part because they have a low “risk” when it comes to being “experimental”. The market of small publishers is fueled by creativity, not fungibility.

When you reduce the effect of “marketability pressures” on print, you start seeing work that is not affected by capitalism. It is in most ways free. In fact, it becomes largely about dematerializing capitalism. “Free Enterprise” in the world of print is, by default, “Free of Capital”, something that challenges capital, or at least something that challenges other work of its time. The majority of the large publishing industry has become antithetical to the purpose of writing. So why support it?

But imagine making these small press markets feasible, stable, if not successful. Imagine people reading, on a wider spectrum, works that are actually “new” “challenging” and “unafraid”. Yeah. That sounds fucking rad. And that’s what we decided to support. And that’s exactly how we decided money had no real place in what we are trying to do.

Along the same lines, asking for books is as easy as sending an email. Get to know a little about this publisher, some of their writers, the books they already have in print. They WILL be excited to get their books in the hands of a new audience. This “audience” will in some ways be guided by what you are able to acquire. Treat the acquisition of books you love like a passion. Like you, they also want to SHARE. This is all we’re doing. Funny thing is, once you ask, provide a good reason and show a little bit of knowledge, you will almost always get what you ask for. And why not? Books are written to be read. An author is always stoked to have someone new reading their work. Double period.

ON ELONGATING THE IDEA OF GIVING:

Because you will be relying on other people to build your collection and community, give respect where respect is due. Keep a list of anyone who has helped you in any way. Keep this list for a later date, when you can surprise them with other opportunities that come your way. And they very well may. Create circles that elongate the idea of giving. It doesn’t take much effort, and everyone comes out on top. The Internet comes into play here, as it’s the place you’ll be showing this respect.

When someone sends you something in the mail, take a picture of it. If we’re talking about Facebook, post the picture, tag the authors, tag the press. When someone, anyone, checks out a book, take a picture of them. Tag the person, tag the author, propose a conversation in the caption. Bridge the gap between artist and reader. Sometimes that bridge is as small as a tag.

When someone brings in books to loan to the collection, they become a new member. Take a picture. Let people know what’s going on at the library. Let people know exactly what this person brought, what they checked out afterward and essentially, give them “credit” publicly for DOING SOMETHING. It makes other people wish they were doing things. It can also showcase someone’s taste. All of this is important when you’re creating a community.

ON CHECKOUT MODELS:

Our model for checkouts developed through a series of trials and errors. What we’ve come up with seems to be a sturdy model, but there are always ways to make the system better. A book can only be checked out by a member. This is important and by no means “exclusive”. We are dealing in large part with books that are not ours. For this reason we need to establish a sense of liability toward books that people check out. This is why you can’t walk in as a “stranger” and check out a book: because you could just walk away with it. Membership can be attained for free, in the case that they, the member-to-be, contribute to the collection, and give us a name and email where we can pursue overdue books (30-day maximum, explained below). A member has either loaned us ten of their books or donated twenty dollars. This serves as collateral in the case that someone decides to steal a book. Their membership is terminated and their money is kept (likely at a larger cost than the stolen book) or they forfeit their ten books as a donation in lieu of the pocketed book. Any stolen book is replaced with the now-defunct member’s donation. Thanks!

As it stands, our members can check out one book at a time. Checking books out one at a time encourages more frequent visits, which can be beneficial to the reader because we are always receiving new books. The book we recommended last week will definitely be a new book this week. Having one book at a time encourages the member to actually read the book. There is accountability, as well, since there is only one copy of each book. If a member keeps this in mind, they’ll realize that their possession of the book is limiting others’ access to the book. In this sense we’re creating a dynamic that may get people reading more, and more often.

Checkouts are limited to a 30-day period. We feel that if you’re unable to read the book in that amount of time, you should try a different one. If it’s a very large book, then we can negotiate. If the book is being used for a class in school or some other project, the member should consider buying the book on their own and sharing the library’s copy with everyone else.

ON CATALOGUE MAINTENANCE USING GOODREADS:

We keep track of both checkouts and members’ donations using Goodreads.com, which is a free resource for book catalogue maintenance. Goodreads is an easy application to get the hang of, and it has over 13 million books in its database. Like most things on the Internet, Goodreads will undoubtedly be supplanted by a more useful application in the future. For the time being, it is what we use, and so we’ll explain how we use it below.

You’ll need to create a profile when you begin. Your username should be the name of your library, so others can find your books without much trouble. When you receive a book, you mark it as “on our shelf”. This gives browsers the ability to see what we have in our catalog from their homes. Your catalogue will always be the books you’ve marked as “on our shelf”. Goodreads also allows you to mark which books are available for checkout.

When someone checks out a book, mark the book as checked out. There will be a tab for this. There are several more options on a given book. You can create new “shelves” that apply to the donator of said book. Say the book is Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil: this book can be marked as “on our shelf”, “checked out”, and “donated by Kate Zambreno” all at the same time. There is no limit to the amount of classifications you can add to a book. Each classification has a shelf.

Members’ donation folders are important because if another member checks out a book, likes it and is interested in other books that were donated by the same member, they can find it (and so can you). This idea of accountability is important. Each time a specific press sends you books in the mail, create a shelf for those books. This lets people know who has contributed outside of members, and should show the effort this publisher has put into providing books to the cause.

We decided to create a shelf labeled “wishlist.” This allowed us to find books we really want, don’t already have, and advertise that to prospective members. If someone came in with a book from the wishlist it counted doubly toward their membership, meaning they are helping satisfy our curatorial goals and getting membership for a smaller amount of loaned books. Also, if a member wants something that is not here, we will put it on the wishlist in hopes that another member, current or prospective, will fulfil that wish. Of course, there are likely many other ideas along this line that you could incorporate into your checkout model. We are always evolving.

ON MEMBERSHIP MODELS:

It’s helpful to talk in a little more depth about the ways in which a person becomes a member of the library. Liability for the books is important, but what’s even more important is the idea that memberships should never be about profit. Our option to donate twenty dollars for a year is actually kind of an eyesore. It’s an inclusive clause, because some people don’t have books to donate, or don’t wish to house their books with us. In that case, we’re glad to let people be a part of the library for a small yearly fee (less than $2/month). We’d really like to be able to offer membership to anyone, free of charge, but of course problems would arise with the operators of the library itself, in the form of replacing stolen books.

Models that involve monthly payments seem like a good way for people to “try out” the experience. In our case, though, it would be nearly impossible to force people to come in and pay their monthly dues. It would really just be more confusing, more work than is necessary. If someone decides they’d like to “try out” the library, you can always offer a refund (in the case they donated money). In the case that they donated books, the option is already on the table: retrieve your books and dissolve your membership. If in doubt, just do what you’d consider reasonable if you were in the member’s position. Practices that may turn people away are obviously going to have a negative impact on the greater community.

ON SANITY MAINTENANCE:

We would suggest opening the library, in the least, as a duo (two founders/operators). Why? Because things can get a little weird when you sit in a room with individuals (or no individuals) all day. But that’s maybe not the real reason. The real reason is that keeping up with event programming, the catalogue, running events, providing beer, paying for the rent, cleaning the place, tending to the emails, tending to the online outlets and generally keeping the library something that is “constant” becomes somewhat draining after a time.

If you are able to involve more than two people, you’ll find that you’ll never have to deal with a lot of the stress and lack of motivation you’d find operating a space like this solo. That’s not to say it can’t be done. We run our space currently as a partnership of two, but even on some days, we need help. We need days off, to do our laundry, to work on our other projects, or to just do absolutely nothing, which can be a relief.

If your space is one in which you live, understand that your “free” time will be limited. Even if you’re able to work or write from your post in the library. Continually, you will be bombarded with questions, ideas and conversation. Which is fantastic. It may not lend well to much productivity on your part, though, if you’re picturing such a situation becoming reality. It just won’t.

That said, make sure to do a few of these things:

  1. NEVER “OVERPLAY” CERTAIN MUSIC. This will drive your fellow operators and patrons crazy. Play something you don’t even know about. Someone else may. This is always educational, and therefore great.

  2. Mix up the layout. By this I mean rearrange things and immerse yourself in different “feng shui vibes”. No one will believe this is making a difference, but indeed it will.

  3. READ THINGS IN YOUR LIBRARY. It’s always good to have just finished something and recommend it to the next patron who comes in. Usually you’ll have enough to say about it to convince them. Which is good because then you can talk about it when they return.

  4. Get fans, heaters, air conditioning or whatever else you can to remain comfortable in the space. People appreciate this kind of thing, but above all, you, the most, will appreciate this.

  5. Put people on the spot. Turn on your computer and do a live broadcast and tell them to read whatever book they’re holding. Usually no one will watch, but sometimes they do. It doesn’t really matter. It’s nice to be put on the spot. Keep your patrons on their toes.

  6. Accept everyone. Unless they steal. If you have a good location you’ll notice certain people who come in every day to get some coffee, conversation, etc. THESE ARE GOOD PEOPLE. Unless they steal. Let anyone who doesn’t steal hang out. Say hello and ask them what’s going on.

If you maintain a higher number of open hours you’ll find a few of these things helpful to maintaining your sanity. There are countless numbers of other things you could add to this list. Just keep in mind that if this isn’t going to be paying you for your time (it won’t) don’t be bummed if it requires as much or more work than a real job. At some times, it definitely will. But there will be other times when it becomes clear that everything is well worth it.

ON COMMUNITY INTERACTION:

The best thing about your library is that it is an actual “place”. To be sure, there may be no other place in your neighborhood like it: nothing is for sale, you can stay as long as you like, and the only consumption formally encouraged is in the form of knowledge digestion. The library is like a park, or a club. The library is somewhere that you can hang out, member or not, and read, talk and exchange ideas. It’s fascinating to experience what a difference the venue can make in seeding social interaction.

Events will play a large role in expanding the use of your library. Events should not be limited to “types”. What’s great about the library is that it is NOT a gallery. Interested parties should not be put through a submission process. The best friends, times, and results have come from spontaneous proposals by people largely expecting to be turned down. The library should not be a place that turns down ideas. Ideas are what keep the library afloat.

Readings and literary events should be a goal of yours. If your library happens to become a destination for such a thing, and can house it, fill your schedule as much as possible. Different writers bring in different spectators. For the most part, these spectators will be visiting the library for the first time. This is an opportunity to inform people what you’re doing and expand the membership and collection. Not to mention offering local writers a platform to do their thing. Most of the time, if the writer has published something, they’ll donate a copy for everyone to read. Feel free to ask this author to sign the book to the library. You never know who will find this special, and how it may close the gap between reader and writer.

Many readings are planned ahead of time and are hosted by venues that require this type of preparation. Your library requires no such thing. Be open to last minute readings, secret readings or anything that writers offer up. Sometimes touring writers’ events will fall through, in which case, relationships with local venues should be maintained so that these writers can be referred to your space. Eventually, it will not be ridiculous to ask writers you like to read in your library. They may even want to, or ask before you do.

What becomes clear is that the type and intimacy of events in your space will take on a different shape than those events hosted at bars and bookstores. There is no pressure to make your time in the space “pay”. No unhappy bartenders. No quiet corners to hide in. It is probably a lot of people standing. It is probably a lot of people talking. It is probably a lot of people finding a space in which they feel a sense of belonging.

And this is how it should remain. When you ask for nothing but participation in exchange for: a space, books, company, exposure; it’s hard to find an end to the positive reactions. This is something people want. And they’re already there. All you have to do is DO IT.

—J.P., May 14th, 2013, edited M.N., May 23rd 2013

MORE ABOUT MELLOW PAGES:

Mellow Pages was founded by Jacob Perkins and Matt Nelson in February of 2013, in Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York City. As of May 14th the collection has grown to over 1,700 books, zines, journals and chapbooks. There are over 100 members and close to 100 independent publishers have donated work to the collection. They have been profiled by The New York Times, Time Out New York, The L Magazine and have given interviews on Xinhua News Agency (Chinese TV) and News 12 Brooklyn. They have been featured on the Other People Podcast by Brad Listi and plan to speak on several different panels at events such as the Associated of Writers & Writing Programs Conference in Seattle (Spring 2014).

Matt was born and raised in Seattle, WA. Jacob was born in Alaska and raised in Ridgefield, WA. They are 26 years old.

 

 

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