Portland’s Only Bookmobile Has Been Stolen

In a city rife with car thieves, not even the bookmobile is safe.

Christine Quinn hands out books at Gateway Discovery Park. (Blake Benard)

The Bookmobile Babe has been without wheels before.

When Christie Quinn started a children’s book giveaway in the summer of 2018, she didn’t have a car. So she rode the MAX train, lugging a backpack heavy with children’s books, to Southeast Portland’s Creston and Lents parks and gave them away to kids who came to the city’s free lunch program.

Over the next five years, Bookmobile Babe grew into a bona fide nonprofit organization, with two paid employees, 10 regular volunteers and, yes, an actual bookmobile.

The donated 1999 Dodge Caravan had some flaws—200,000 miles on the odometer and the dashboard display didn’t work, so Quinn had to guess when she needed gas—but it also had custom bookshelves in the back and a “Bookmobile Babe” magnet she could slap on the side.

And now, Quinn is on foot again. The bookmobile was stolen July 9 from Ladd’s Addition from in front of a home where she is dog- and housesitting for the summer.

In a city rife with car thieves, not even the bookmobile is safe.

Groggy and in her pajamas, Quinn was grabbing her morning newspaper off the front porch when she looked up and saw the bookmobile was gone. She stood agape, staring at the empty parking space alongside the rose garden and then said “probably all the expletives.”

Most of Quinn’s inventory was spared because she keeps her 5,000 books in two storage units on Southeast Belmont Street.

“Frankly, would I want it back?” she asks. “The answer to that is no. All my friends who have had this happen to them, if they get their vehicles back they are undrivable and in a horrible state.”

The Portland Police Bureau says 5,442 cars have been stolen in the first half of 2022. For comparison, 3,406 cars were stolen in the first half of 2021. That’s a 59% increase and means Portland is on pace to surpass last year’s number, which was the highest Portland had seen in 25 years.

In the past year, 92% of stolen vehicles have been recovered—80% within 30 days of the theft. But that’s not because of investigations: The Police Bureau hasn’t had an auto theft unit since 2006. Instead, most vehicles are found abandoned and no arrest is made.

The Portland Police Bureau says it doesn’t have enough officers for such a task force anymore. The bureau is down to 324 patrol officers for a city of 650,000, says spokeswoman Terri Wallo Strauss. (The total number of sworn officers is 768; in 2006, there were 1,015.)

“It’s really not about money, but manpower,” Strauss said. “Officers run call to call and have very little time for proactive work.”

Adding insult to injury: Last week, Beaverton police announced they had busted open the region’s biggest catalytic converter theft and fencing ring, which funded a rental home on the shore of Lake Oswego. Portland police and prosecutors watched as the suburbs took a victory lap for fighting the city’s crime wave.

But the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office responds that it has prosecuted more motor vehicle thefts (71% of cases referred to the office) in the last quarter of 2022 than at any point in the past three years.

The office has been busy with the city’s surge in gun violence but “our prioritization of violent crime was never, ever at the expense of property crime or low-level crime,” says Elisabeth Shepard, spokeswoman for the DA’s office. “That is empirically and objectively untrue.”

When the bookmobile vanished, Quinn found law enforcement’s response plodding. She turned to social media instead.

Quinn saw that she couldn’t file a police report online for vehicle theft, so she called the Police Bureau the morning she discovered the theft. She hung up after spending an hour on hold.

That night, she was scheduled to work at the Portland Night Market at 100 SE Alder St. “I almost didn’t go because I was so devastated and stressed,” she says.

She did, though, and she ended up chatting with a security guard who pointed her to a Facebook group for finding stolen vehicles. Quinn is pretty sure she saw the bookmobile—sans license plates but with some familiar dings on the bumper—being towed by a white truck in a photo sent to her by the Facebook group.

When she finally met with a police officer three days after the van was stolen, she decided not to file a report.

“I didn’t want to waste anybody’s time looking for this thing,” she says, assuming it would cost her more money to refurbish the van than it was worth.

Quinn grew up in Greenville, S.C., and has warm memories of a bookmobile visiting her neighborhood when she was a child. A former high school English teacher, she volunteered as a weekend book shelver for the Multnomah County Library when she moved to Portland from the San Francisco Bay Area in 2015. She learned the library had no bookmobile, and the idea for Bookmobile Babe was born.

“We promote diverse literature and give it to underserved populations,” Quinn says. “I’m not here to give free books away to rich kids.”

The Multnomah County Library’s last bookmobile service was in 1997, according to a spokesperson. However, the agency just announced a new Mobile Library, a custom RV outfitted with books, Wi-Fi, computers, printers and room for storytime. The Mobile Library route will prioritize communities that do not have close access to a library branch.

“This is a unique opportunity for the library to expand our reach into the community,” says David Lee, mobile and partner libraries manager. “Expanding our library services with the Mobile Library to communities that have barriers coming in is just another way we will be able to do this.”

The service’s start date has not been announced.

Bookmobile Babe runs a free summer reading camp Tuesdays and Thursdays at Lents Park at noon that coincides with the city’s Free Lunch + Play. Participants read a picture book on a particular theme (examples: Black Lives Matter, banned books, love the Earth), discuss it and do an art project.

“What the Bookmobile Babe can do is incredible,” says Alicia Hammock, recreation supervisor at Portland Parks & Recreation. About two dozen children show up for the bookmobile, and this summer Quinn expanded the program to Gateway Discovery Park. “We are beyond thankful.”

Now, Quinn’s nonprofit is “fundraising for our lives,” she says. Quinn set up a GoFundMe campaign (at press time, she’d raised about $1,500 of her $20,000 goal). She applied for three grants in one day. She has her eye on a Japanese fire truck in Seattle that she could customize into a bookmobile.

Quinn also dreams of a storefront in the Gateway neighborhood.

“We’re not going to let a stolen van get us down,” Quinn says. “We have so many great things going on, and the community loves us so much.”

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