When he isn’t promoting books for W.W. Norton, Peter Miller, publicity director of Norton’s Liveright imprint, moonlights as the owner of Freebird Books, a small used bookstore he operates in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens neighborhood. He has owned Freebird, which specializes in titles about New York City, since he bought the store “on a whim” from its original owners in 2007. “It was my midlife crisis purchase,” he said.
A year after buying the store, Miller heard that Books Through Bars, which donates books to prison inmates around the country, needed a space for its collection operations. Freebird is only open on weekends, and the store’s basement was not being used, so he offered the space to BTB rent free to use as its home base. He’s also been helping BTB with collections and shipments. “It’s been a great relationship,” he said.
Then Covid-19 struck and the program was forced to shut down for safety reasons. The Freebird basement is small, which makes it difficult to facilitate social distancing for workers. The BTB operation at Freebird has since been restarted, albeit at a reduced level of “one or two of us working in the store at a distance to get the books packed and shipped,” Miller said. “It’s a slower process, but we’re getting it done.”
While Freebird and the BTB collection room were closed, book drop-offs declined. To renew interest, Miller began a series of monthly book drives in June that have led to more than 3,000 book donations. The drives are organized around customers purchasing three-book sets at a discounted price of $30 each, to be donated to inmates.
The first drive offered science fiction author N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, and people bought and donated 185 sets of the books. In July, the program offered a Grove Press bundle that included Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Albert Woodfox’s Solitary, and Malcolm X: Selected Speeches, edited by George Breitman (543 sets purchased). And in August it offered a graphic nonfiction bundle that included John Lewis’s March: Book One, George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy, and How to Draw Faces (187 sets purchased). In September, Freebird and BTB featured a set containing Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Binti, Victor LaValle’s novel The Ballad of Black Tom, and Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation (139 sets purchased). The October picks are Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Colson Whitehead’s Zone 1, and a selection from Beacon Press’s ReVisioning History series (which offers historical perspectives from Black, LBGTQ, and Indigenous people and other marginalized communities).
According to Miller, the pandemic has caused inmates to be even more desperate for books. The 3,000 books that BTB has been able to distribute since late spring “have gone a long way toward fulfilling the giant backlog of requests BTB received from incarcerated readers, many of whom are in lockdown due to Covid-19,” he said.
The recent sets that have been donated by BTB reflect the types of books inmates are most interested in, Miller said. Horror titles are popular, as are comic books and graphic novels, which are the second-most-requested publications after dictionaries.
BTB volunteer Danny Schaffer said, “We receive letters that tell us that the comics and graphic novels remind [inmates] of home and childhood. They also serve as an entry point to read other books and serve as part of the educational mission of Books Through Bars. The support of Freebird Books in making these monthly bundles possible is an invaluable tool toward our work.”
Miller said he loves the partnership: “BTB has raised my awareness of what prisoners have to go through to get books to read. Working with them has transformed me. Books are how we can all escape.”
Correction: The number of Grove Press sets that were sold in July were incorrectly noted in an earlier version of this story.