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Bookleggers Library's philosophy is that everyone gets one free book.
Bookleggers Library's philosophy is that everyone gets one free book.
Photo by Monica McGivern

Bookleggers Nabs National Book Foundation Honorable Mention

Bookleggers Library founder and CEO Nathaniel Sandler sat at his desk on an ordinary May morning. Stacks of books and hastily scribbled notes covered his at-home workspace. As he prepared for a call with the staff at his Miami nonprofit, he opened his computer and glanced up at the adornments on the wall: a large map of Miami-Dade, personal photos, and some hanging face coverings. His notepad lay neatly beside a bottle of hand sanitizer.

Sandler was gearing up to lead yet another meeting about adjusting to the new normal — but there was one piece of business he had to see to first.

"I have some amazing news!" Sandler announced.

Earlier this month, the National Book Foundation awarded its 2020 Innovations in Reading Prize and cited Bookleggers Library as one of two honorable mentions.

"It's a really big deal in the literary world to be honored by an organization like the National Book Foundation," Sandler tells New Times. "We've never really gotten national recognition for the work that we do with Bookleggers, and to see that someone is looking at us and they think that the work we're doing is cool has been really special."

The NBF is the same foundation that awards the prestigious annual National Book Awards, and Innovations in Reading is no less a distinction; past winners of the $10,000 prize include Little Free Library and Barbershop Books. This year's winner was DIBS for Kids, a Nebraska-based literacy nonprofit.

Along with a warm sense of validation, Bookleggers' honorable mention comes with a $1,000 check — money Sandler says will go toward the general operating budget, or, as he puts it, to help "keep the staff fed."

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Sandler and his team have adjusted their mission ever-so-slightly. Instead of focusing on large literary community events, the group is working to bring stories to people virtually, via its newly launched Story Time for Grown-Ups series.

Every Thursday at 10 p.m., an author or performer reads a story live on Bookleggers' Instagram.

"We like to mimic the programs of a traditional library, and storytime is something that has been on offer throughout human civilization," Sandler says with a laugh. "We're here to provide entertainment for everybody, and especially for artists and the creative community of Miami."

Story Time for Grown-Ups not only provides some much needed late-night entertainment for adults, but it's also a way for Bookleggers to give back to the community that has supported the cause for nearly a decade.

"It's about putting resources into the community but also giving these artists a creative outlet," Sandler says in reference to hiring out-of-work artists.

The weekly series started on April 30 with a reading by filmmaker and writer Jason Fitzroy Jeffers. The following week, LizN'Bow read a script from a Spanish novella. Tonight, May 14, journalist and author Craig Pittman will read three of his favorite Florida poems. (Each week's special guest is announced on Monday.)

"We're trying to spice things up with all different kinds of people and all different kinds of stories," Sandler says.

In addition to the online entertainment, as public parks begin to reopen, Bookleggers will be on hand with a book bike. The idea behind that initiative, Sandler explains, is to hire a musician or performer to ride the bike around parks and entertain the social-distancing populace while offering a free book.

"You can still take in a mini-performance while you're socially distant in the park with your book," Sandler says.

Pre-pandemic, Sandler and his team had been planning for a soft-launch of a new space within the Bakehouse Art Complex in Wynwood. For Sandler, returning to the arts district is like coming full circle:  Bookleggers first popped up in Wynwood in 2012 as a grassroots movement.

"It had the actual smell of grass in certain moments," Sandler quips.

"One of the things I've tried to do through my work is to build safe spaces," he goes on. "Unfortunately, with this virus beaming down on the planet, it's become incredibly difficult. There's a bleak future for safe spaces when there's a virus out there."

He promises that when it's again safe to gather, Bookleggers' impressive collection will be back in full force.

"When the time comes, we'll be ready to open to the public in a way that we've never really been able to be open before, and that'll be thanks in part to the Bakehouse," Sandler assures.

As for the man himself, Sandler is filling his time with books, books, and more books. He says he has been sticking to detective stories like Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes, and light, local history tales like Gladesmen, by Glenn Simmons and Laura Ogden.

"There's some true solace to be found in books. I think a book is a really great place to be because it's safe, socially distant, it's not a screen, and you can't click out of it," Sandler observes. "In a time like this, it's best to keep the people that you can safe and find distraction in beautiful things — and books are beautiful things."

Story Time for Grown-Ups. 10 p.m. every Thursday via instagram.com/bookleggerslibrary.

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