From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays, a handful of volunteers watch over a table stocked with books, water and food at the intersection of Grant Street and Colfax Avenue, near the State Capitol. The operation is run by Little Read Books, a mutual aid group whose organizers became acquainted last summer while protesting against the sweeps of unhoused people in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
The name is a double entendre: It gives a nod to obscure books that do not get much attention while playing off the title of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.
Barring bad weather, the volunteers have set up their stand by the Capitol every weekend since August 15. What initially started out as a book exchange among a small group of friends became Little Read Books when the organizers quickly received more donations than they expected from bookstores around the area — and found Capitol Hill neighbors who were willing to store surplus books in their basement.
"We got so many books that it became obvious it was going to be more than just a few weeks of a project — a few months or even longer,” explains Huey Vo, a founding organizer of Little Read Books (who asked to use a pseudonym.)
Since last summer, the Little Read Books team has expanded to around thirty volunteers who work in various capacities, from picking up books to making administrative decisions. Little Read Books also staffs a storefront at 2260 California Street, which it shares with other community organizations. That space holds 2,000 to 3,000 free books that readers can browse from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends.
The main book donors for Little Read Books are Park Hill Community Bookstore, Mutiny Information Cafe and BookGive. Little Read Books also partners with Comrade Co-op, another local mutual aid group, which distributes breakfast burritos to the unhoused community and stocks the stand on Saturdays. “Comrade Co-op’s burritos are pretty notorious around these parts...for being delicious,” Vo says.
“It was abundantly clear that we needed to be able to feed people as well as take care of those more hierarchical, soul-feeding needs of reading and just having a conversation," explains Meagan Stiverson, a Little Read Books volunteer. "The biggest need that I see out here is for people to be seen as human, and given the time of day to be heard, and listened to, and share their stories.”
Little Read Books organizers chose this corner by the Capitol for their stand because they see their work as a continuation of the momentum that was built up last summer, when the Capitol Hill neighborhood became an epicenter of community efforts to provide unhoused people with food and water.
“One of the most traumatizing and brutal incidents in this area happened last summer," recalls Vo. "Just a couple blocks over, there were 250 people living their lives. One day — surprise — cops showed up at 5 a.m., put fences around everything, and said, ‘If you’re not here right now to pack up your stuff, everything you own is going in either landfill or storage lockers by the airport.’ People lost their IDs, their guitars, their personal phones and electronics, and their passports and birth certificates. It was really irreparable damage done to a lot of people in their neighborhood."
Adds Max Cohen, another volunteer: “Rather than dealing with the problem — which is that these people have been denied housing — the city, and the mayor in particular, are very willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on these sweeps.”
At a recent sweep, he notes, “All they accomplished was to move these people two blocks. In that process, these people lost their homes, they lost their sleeping bags, they lost anything that would help them weather the storm that came two days later. ... It was a big motivating factor for me in doing this.”
The concept of mutual aid has been empowering for Little Read Books volunteers. “Both the state and the private sector have failed,” Cohen argues. “We don’t have to rely on these parasitic people who control this vast wealth to decide they want to trickle some down to the people. Instead, we can show that we can care for ourselves, we can care for our neighbors, when the government and private sector clearly don’t care."
“We can make the change we want,” Vo agrees. “It doesn’t have to be given to us.”
Aside from its weekend work, Little Read Books has a new project: to bring free books to jails and prisons. Learning that a social worker at Denver County Jail was using her own salary to purchase art supplies and books for her clients, the volunteers saw an opportunity to help. They're also starting a radical lending library, which Vo hopes will provide “free access to ideas about how our world should look that are marginalized in favor of capitalism.”
Adds Vo: “It basically started as, ‘How can we take these resources and turn them into an anti-commercial community and a community of solidarity that goes against the grain of our current economy — which is, how can we squeeze the most profits out of every single day?’ We definitely exist to cater to people who can’t afford books — or for whom setting the price point to zero dollars will allow them to enjoy reading and to feel like, ‘I deserve to sit down and get lost in a book, or learn some theory, or learn something I care about.'"
Find out more about Little Read Books here.