A copy of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak sits on an empty Melbourne train seat. Seems appropriate. However, it isn’t waiting to be stolen – the sticker on the front cover revealing that this book is not here by accident. As the PR states, “welcome to a new movement – Books on the Rail.”
That ‘movement’ pun is almost certainly intentional – likely the handiwork of copywriter Ali Berg – founder of this community initiative, along with primary teacher Michelle (Mich) Kalus. It’s essentially a Melbourne commuter library. And gosh it sounds like a lot of fun. So we had a chat with them. On a train.
So Ali and Mich, oh hang on. We’re sitting on something. Hey! It’s a copy of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. How apt. Anyway, how did the idea come about?
“The idea for Books on the Rail started two years ago, when Ali was working at ad agency Leo Burnett in London. One of her co-workers was Hollie Belton, the founder of Books on the Underground in the UK. Ali instantly recognised Hollie’s concept as ‘so Melbourne’ and decided that when she returned to her hometown, she would start it here.”
That answer was ‘so Melbourne’. Okay, so how did you get started?
“After approaching Mich, an avid reader and book reviewer, we started in April 2016 by leaving our own books as well as books purchased from second-hand bookstores and charity shops on trains and trams. Since then, approximately 200 books are making their way around Melbourne.”
Nice – sounds like a great project. And speaking of projects, here’s another book over on this seat – The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. So, tell us – why are you focusing on public transport… trains, trams, and buses?
“There’s a special connection between public transport and reading, that’s been around for years. It’s a place to fully immerse yourself in a book, with many commuters around you doing the exact same thing. In recent times, we’ve noticed that commuters have stopped burying their heads in a novel and instead are playing iPhone games or scrolling through Facebook. We wanted to reignite the magic of reading on trains and trams and encourage Melbournians to put down the smartphone and pick up a book. That’s how we chose the public transport platform.”
Haha, get it? Platform? For a train? Ahem, anyway. It’s a really good point – smartphones have taken over the commuter experience. So how exactly does it work? We’re guessing there are no date stamps or late fees involved.
“Our underlying philosophy is celebrating and sharing the love of reading while promoting new and notable authors and publishers. We wanted to conduct this within a ‘random act of kindness’ model. As unsuspecting commuters stumble across free books, we hope to brighten and enrich their days. Targeting trains, trams and buses seemed like the best way to reach out to people en masse. Each book has a Books on the Rail sticker on it, asking people to ‘take a book, read it and then return it for someone else to enjoy’, enabling books to circulate without us!”
We truly love how the model has resonated with commuters – we’d feel guilty if we didn’t return a book. Speaking of which, here’s Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty. Might take that one actually. Oh wait, that doesn’t have a sticker on it. Oops, sorry sir – didn’t realise. So, what are the goals of the project?
“We want to generate conversation, creating a community forum where people can connect and share stories and recommend books. We recently introduced a library slip style ‘Review Card’ in each book. This allows people to write a quick review of the book they read before returning it to the train or tram. We also hope to continue to expand our geographical reach and the number of books hitting public transport services. We have been receiving more and more requests for stickers from individuals wishing to distribute their own loved books – which is a great way to expand our network. Hopefully in the future, every time you travel on public transport you’ll spot a Books on the Rail book!”
Have you had any feedback or great stories emerging from the community from the project?
“Since launching this new movement, we’re so excited to have gained a serious and passionate following. Now both Australian and international publishers and authors are sending us books to distribute on public transport. Pan Macmillan, HarperCollins, Bloomsbury Publishing, Hachette, Allen and Unwin, Penguin Books, Echo Publishing, Black Inc. Books, Andy Griffiths, Monica McInerney, Liane Moriarty, Benjamin Law, Markus Zusak and Catherine Ryan Hyde are among some of the publishers and authors that are on board.”
So that’s a yes then…
“It’s been really great hearing what authors have to say about our initiative. Hearing from commuters who have found our books is also always an absolute highlight! The other day, a young girl posted about discovering Ghost Girls by Cath Ferla while waiting for her morning train! ‘Another reason to love Melbourne: waiting for a train at 6:45am. It’s okay because there’s a free book to read at the station. Thanks Books on the Rail, you made my day!” she posted.
Does that make Cath a ghost writer? Hmmm. Now Ali – you’ve completed the Creative Writing Stage 1 course at AWC. What was the most useful aspect for you?
“Since I could hold a crayon, I’ve always been obsessed with writing, which is why I became a copywriter. While writing in my everyday profession is great, I don’t get much freedom to do my own creative writing. By enrolling in Creative Writing Stage 1, I not only had the opportunity to learn some great skills, but I also gained the motivation to write my own creative pieces every day. Something I had previously been lacking. Learning from my talented classmates and the brilliant Nicole Hayes was a priceless opportunity. We’re actually very excited because Nicole is sending us some of her books to be planted on the train and trams, and we’re sure Melbourne commuters will absolutely love them!”
And Ali, Mich – we’re guessing that you both know each other?
We have known each other for over two decades! We first met at the ripe age of five years old while holidaying with our families in Marysville. We have travelled together, founded and captained a netball team, read and frantically discussed tens and tens of books simultaneously, celebrated countless birthdays and milestones and simply reveled in each other’s presence on a weekly basis. We are very dear to one another.
So finally, how can people get involved in this project?
“You can visit the website www.booksontherail.com and request stickers to add to your own books. Or, keep your eyes peeled on Melbourne trains, trams and buses for Books on the Rail books.