A pop up library, and a community of readers, grows in Camden

Every day, people from all walks of life wait for buses, trains and light rail service at the Walter Rand Transportation Center in downtown Camden. A hub for PATCO service to Philadelphia and Camden County suburbs, with River Line service to Burlington County and Trenton, almost 10,000 people pass through the center every day, on average, which is why you’ll find Tom Martin there once a week.

But, he’s not going anywhere. Instead, he’s handing out books every Wednesday morning at 11, chatting with regulars and getting books into the hands of passersby. For a place people often want to leave quickly to get to their destination, there’s no place Martin would rather be.

Martin started the Camden County Pop Up Library in 2017, and he now serves as executive director. Ever since he was a child growing up in nearby Cherry Hill, Martin loved reading, and as an avid Phillies and 76ers fan, he would read the sports section first in the Philadelphia Inquirer. One of his relatives got him a subscription to the Los Angeles Times, and he says “his mailman hated him” for how many books and newspapers he got in the mail. As he grew older, Martin retained a fantasy of driving a bookmobile around, and passing books out to strangers.

“For some reason, I don’t know why, but I always thought that the bookmobile was so cool,” explains Martin. “You take the urge to give out books, and you take the urge from reading newspapers and watching the news and you get the pop up library. I feel like I’m making a difference in my own backyard.”

Martin originally launched the first pop up library outside of a former methadone clinic in downtown Camden. He set up a table with books, and within a few hours, the books were gone. The pop-up library has grown since 2017, and he now visits three locations in Camden: Walter Rand on Wednesdays from 11 a.m.-1 p.m., Cathedral Kitchen on Wednesdays from 3-5 p.m., and near Zion Baptist Church in the Waterfront South neighborhood on Fridays from 7-9 a.m.

Martin puts out two tables worth of books at the three pop-up libraries. He estimates that he gives out 115 books at each stop. When asked about the most popular types of books at the pop-up libraries, without hesitation Martin brought up James Patterson books. 

“James Patterson is the man,” says Martin. “There’s no second place, and his books are in my car and I’m waiting for people to ask. People will come by and say ‘you know who I want’ and I’ll go to the car and get it. I call Patterson a gateway author for people who aren’t into reading and want to get into it.”

Martin always keeps a few Patterson books in the back seat of his car, which Camden-based Subaru of America donated to the cause, and which Martin uses to store the gear and books for the libraries.

Besides Patterson, books on self-help and religion are popular at the pop-up libraries, but Martin has all genres of books (and hand sanitizer) available on the tables including non-fiction, fiction and kids’ books. Martin enjoys handing out books to people, but he enjoys the community that he’s built with the pop-up library as well. 

“People expect us out there on Wednesdays at Walter Rand, and if we miss a day, they’ll give us hell,” says Martin. “The other week I was there early, and people were like, ‘Why are you here so early?’ they know my schedule better than I do.”

In the rare occurrence that Martin isn’t in Camden handing out books, there are “book arks” around Camden, Gloucester City, Pennsauken and Southwest Philadelphia that house books. Martin was inspired to make the book arks when he saw an empty newspaper bin.

“I realized that the pop-up libraries are great, but they are one and done,” says Martin. “Two or three years ago I saw an empty newspaper bin, and asked my friend to retrofit it. Instead, my friend built something like the newspaper bin but for books, and it turned out to be the first book ark. These arks are out on the street 24/7 and are in different areas of Camden, Gloucester and Philly. The books are accessible to people 24/7 and are in low-income areas with lots of foot traffic.”

Martin recruited his friend Dr. John Martin (no relation) to build the book arks for the pop up library. 

Photo credit: Tom Martin

“Tom asked me if I would be interested in building arks that could be used to give books away like a newspaper stand,” says Dr. Martin. “I built the prototypes for the book arks in my garage, and Tom approved them. I started building the arks right away, and built 20-30 arks.”

Once the books arks are built and painted, Martin places the book arks in locations with high foot traffic and in areas that don’t have access to a town library or a Camden County library.

“I get direct feedback from the people at the pop up libraries, and it’s really cool because they don’t know that the pop up library is the one that supplies the books for the arks,” says Martin. 

Martin then assigns a person in the area to be the manager for the book arks and replenish the books.

Dianne Gibbert of Stratford manages book arks in and around Camden. She’s known by regulars who visit the book ark as the “book lady.” Gibbert’s daughter Christina also helps with painting the book arks, after realizing that painted arks get more circulation.

“There’s never a day where I don’t have a pleasant conversation within the community,” says Gibbert. “It’s always good to see that the books are out and people are reading. It makes me happy.”

Recently, Camden County Pop Up Library teamed up with Inkwood Books in Haddonfield for auction items. They recently auctioned off a lyric book signed by Paul McCartney, which raised a significant amount of money for Martin’s cause. 

Back in December of 2020, Martin was able to access a library on Federal Street in Camden that has been shuttered for over a decade, where he was able to score books for the pop up library. He collected a couple thousand books written in Spanish and books written by people of color such as Toni Morrison. 

In the future, Martin would like to expand the pop up library idea to cities like Bridgeton, Trenton, Patterson and Newark. But in the meantime he’s enjoying every single day he’s out in Camden handing out books.

“There’s not a pop up library that goes by where I don’t thank my lucky stars that I’m doing that,” says Martin. “It’s like watching the ocean when you have shit going on in your life and helps you focus. Each time I’m blown away by the generosity of people or just the appreciation of people.”

Go here for more information on the Camden County Pop Up Library.