This article is from last year, but I never posted it as far as I remember. We say some weird stuff sometimes...Ward Tefft and Shelley Briggs
Before they hit the road to New Orleans, we catch up with the co-founders of "Books on Wheels."
Monday, February 25, 2008
"Richmond has been amazingly supportive. There's no way I could imagine doing this anywhere other than here. The city itself and the support we've gotten from friends and other businesses have helped carry us through this."
Sometimes the best ideas are wrapped in the worst of packages. After an accident in January 2007 left Shelley Briggs without a car of her own, she and friend Ward Tefft, owner of Chop Suey bookstore, made it their mission to help others in the Richmond community and beyond. With the formation of Richmond's most beloved free book and bike repair nonprofit, "Books on Wheels," Shelly and Ward will hit the road again in their loudly decorated "Mo Books Mo Bikes" mobile on Friday, March. 7. Richmond.com was able to catch up with the pair before making their second trip to New Orleans.
Have you two always been Richmonders?
Ward: I'm originally from Maryland and went to VCU here in the mid-'90s. I moved back here in 2001 to take over the store. Shelley is from North Carolina and Virginia Beach and moved here in 2000 to go to VCU.
Shelley: I'm getting my masters in Social Work right now.
So why Richmond – and Ward, how did you come to own Chop Suey?
Ward: I moved back and I'd been working in used bookstores and new bookstores for about seven years when I got back and decided I wanted to do one in Richmond, and it just happened a lot quicker than I thought it was going to.
How did the bookstore get its name Chop Suey?
Ward: We call it Chop Suey because, you can see from the old sign, it used to be George's Chop Suey which was a restaurant. I had some friends that lived here when James Bradford, who is a painting professor at VCU, owned the building and they lived here. We have always called it Chop Suey, so it was easy to figure out the name. That's why the store opened so quickly too, is because this building came open and I knew I really wanted to be here.
Moving on to Books on Wheels, what sparked your interest for the project?
Shelley: It all started with a car crash actually. Last year, in January, I got in a car accident and my truck was ruined. I decided that opposed to buying another personal vehicle, I would like to purchase a bus with the idea of doing mobile bicycle repair. I never expressed this interest to anyone before, but I had been working on bikes for a while before all this happened. As far as Richmond goes, and just over all, being able to fix people's bikes is a great skill to have, but if they have no way of getting to you, then you can't really do a whole lot. So, Ward came over to my house one afternoon and I had been searching around for a vehicle, and I had this bus circled in Auto Trader. I told him about my idea and he said, "I've always wanted to do a book mobile, I have a constant supply of books that I can't do anything with." We probably talked about it for another 10 minutes and literally bought it the next day. We got the bus painted and dove head-first into the project and have just been learning as we go along.
Ward: It all moved really quickly because Shelley had off for spring break, so we had a deadline.
What's your mission and what are you hoping to accomplish with Books on Wheels?
Ward: We serve as a jumpstart for people to start reading and ride their bikes more. On the book side of it, we hope to encourage literacy and make books available, free and mobile so we can get to areas where kids maybe don't have access to libraries. One of the cool things about the bus is that when we pull up to places, kids will be like, "Wow, it's the bus!" And they'll take books from us that they wouldn’t otherwise. We did an event in New Orleans where the church we were at gave us like 10 boxes of books that they couldn't get the kids to take and we just happened to set them out when we were doing our event and because we had the bus, the same kids that wouldn't take the books from the church, came to us and walked away with handfuls. On the bike side of it, we are able to be mobile and get to people whose bikes may need to be fixed.
What was your favorite experience from last year's Book on Wheels tour?
Shelley: We had a lot going on last year. We went on two separate tours, one down to New Orleans and back and another up to New York, over to Chicago and home again. I don't really know if I can think of a favorite experience.
Ward: Well, this one story is a good one. It was a long day from New Orleans to Nashville and we stopped at this gas station. The preface to this story is that at one of the first events that we did in Greensboro, this person brought us this bag of mystery and romance paperbacks and it was great, but who were we going to give these to? So five days later we were at this gas station and the cashier asked what we were doing, we told her, and she asked, "Oh, do you have any mystery or romance novels in there?" So we gave them to her and she went nuts. She couldn't have been happier. I mean we were there for only 10 minutes and we left this woman who was so excited about having seen us.
What's going to be different about this year's tour?
Ward: Size and scope. We have a bus that's two and a half sizes bigger so we're bringing down, I'd say close to 2,000 books. We only brought 300 down with us last time. We're also bringing two more bike mechanics this year and taking on volunteers because we have the room to travel with people, and a photographer.
Shelley: We're also starting to learn more practical ways to distribute the books, better locations, contacts to make. We learned a lot that first trip, what works well and what doesn't. We're bringing bikes this time too, to give away to people who need them, like if someone brings us their bike and we really can't fix it.
What's "Moby" the "Mo Books Mo Bikes" Mobile like inside?
Shelley: The bus came blue because the guy we got it from ran a river rafting company. But a friend of ours was very, very kind and two hours after we gave the bus to him, it looked incredible. We have magnets on the inside from all the places we've been too and the inside is painted pink like Pepto-Bismol … so you can't get car sick.
Is "Moby" your home away from home then?
Shelley: We do stay in the bus. It's roomy enough and we feel more comfortable just staying with it. Plus it cuts our costs because we don't ever have to pay for a place to stay. And Ward has a megaphone with a siren option on it. So we sleep next to it and if we feel something is getting sketchy, we'll just turn it on. Last year, we actually didn't use it, even though there were a couple of times we probably should have.
How do you decide where to tour and which stops to make?
Shelley: We started off by just getting in contact with people we knew in other cities. Ward has a really good friend in Greensboro, we have a really good friend in Pensacola, I used to live in New Orleans – so we just started making those rounds. Even if our friends, if they don't live in the areas we target themselves, they know of a place where they think we should be. We're not always at an after-school program with kids running around, but that's the fun of it, being diverse.
Ward: We're only going to actually be in four cities this year, but for our own benefit of being able to do more, we've double-booked ourselves everywhere.
What is the best part about doing Books on Wheels?
Shelley: Honestly … hanging out. Who doesn't want to drive around with their best friend and do something good?
Ward: One of the easiest things about this project is doing it in Richmond. The response we've gotten from local businesses is just awesome.
Shelley: Richmond has been amazingly supportive. There's no way I could imagine, comparatively to where else I've lived, doing this anywhere other than here. The city itself and the support we've gotten from friends and other businesses have helped carry us through this.
What's the hardest part of the job?
Shelley: Driving around the bus and finding the time to do as much as we want to do. Our brains are moving a year ahead of what either of us have the time to do, and that will change when I'm done with school. But that's frustrating for me, because I want to do so much right now, and I just have to tell myself to just do one, just do a little bit right now.
What are your future plans for Books on Wheels?
Shelley: I think the biggest plans we have right now are to still get on the road a couple times a year and do what we can around Richmond. We really like the way it's going right now. I think our next big move, which I'm hopeful will happen in the spring, is getting the bus converted off of diesel. We'd like to not be riding around on diesel anymore.
Through your efforts with Books on Wheels, what lessons have you learned about yourself or others?
Shelley: I was actually talking to my sister about this the other day. I've just realized how unbelievably important relationships are with people, and not just with Ward and I, but with thanking every resource we've ever had and taking the time to talk to people.
Ward: Also, just doing selfless things for other people and helping people out, is really energizing and fulfilling. Last summer we did an eight day tour to different public library branches, while we were both working and it was the hottest week! But I had no regrets. I couldn't have felt better at the end of the day.
What are your favorite books?
Shelley: We have a book collection in the bus, and I can't remember the exact titles of them right now, but they're our favorites because of the stories behind them. They all have a story.
What's your favorite spot in Richmond?
Shelley: I really like the fish tacos at Café Ole.
Ward: I have such a hard time narrowing things down into favorites; it's hard to pick just one thing.
What's your favorite thing to do when you're not working or planning Books on Wheels?
Shelley and Ward: Basketball.
Ward: Oh, Holly Street Park; that would be one of my favorite places. If you're looking for us, you can definitely find us down there.
Shelley: But you better bring you game.
What's your worst vice or guilty pleasure?
Shelley: Watching my mouth (laughs).
Ward: Caring too much (laughs). Just kidding, that's only funny when people can hear me say it.
What do you admire most in a person?
Ward: Honesty and follow-through. From working with people, those are the people that are the best to be around.
Shelley: Yeah … what he said.
Richmond is ______.
Shelley and Ward: Awesome!