Two blocks from the ocean, a storefront painted white with green stripes inside stood out from the other shops of Miami Beach. Bookleggers Library, the nonprofit that opened the storefront in May 2021, called it Beach Reads and described it as “the combination tourist store and free library you never knew you needed.” Beach Reads, like the other “walk-in libraries” Bookleggers has operated over the years, gave away free books. By the time the shop closed last August, 10,000 people had walked through its doors, estimates Nathaniel Sandler ’04, founder of Bookleggers. “For every two people that came, one took a book,” he says.
Beach Reads is one of the many innovative ways Bookleggers has gotten books to readers over the years. Those efforts began in 2012 with monthly events rotating around bars. The concept attracted attention, and eventually Bookleggers grew. Since then, the organization has given away more than 50,000 books, by its count, and received a National Book Foundation honorable mention recognition for innovations in reading. “It’s a very ethically clean way of getting rid of books, because we give them back out for free,” Sandler says. “We’re quite literally saving them from the garbage, from destruction, from the dump.”
At Bookleggers events, everyone gets one free book, additional books are $2 each, and book trades are accepted. To reach readers outdoors during the pandemic, Bookleggers launched a “Bookbike,” a bicycle with speakers, WiFi, and shelves of free books. The organization has also operated storefronts, including the one in Miami Beach. Sandler says of their events, “The books are free, the joy is free, and it’s always a good time.”
Sandler sees reading as a way to get people away from their screens, something he says is not difficult to do. “The phone has made everybody’s brain think differently,” he says. “It has made it harder for people to read, for people to focus, but people still do read.” For young people, especially, “books and paper are, I think, a place of solace,” he says. He likens traditional books to the way candles still exist, even as people have electricity. “When Edison invented the lightbulb, they thought it was the end of the candle,” he says.
Sandler’s friend Sam Biederman ’05 (they met through Vassar’s WVKR), calls Bookleggers “a love letter to the wonderful, unique, under-recognized Miami that is full of readers and artists and thinkers of all different kinds.”
Bookleggers is about standing “for community and for something that’s free, something that you can laugh at, and something that you can think is beautiful,” Sandler says. At a time when books are undergoing challenges and removals, he adds, the organization operates “in defiance of destruction.”
“The books are free, the joy is free, and it’s always a good time.”