Imagine a hideaway containing thousands of free books just waiting to be picked up off the shelves and enjoyed.
A place filled to the rafters with words - hundreds of thousands of words crammed between each creased spine, filling each well thumbed page, words spilling off the shelves and out of boxes, stacked precariously in wheelbarrows and other similarly odd and out-of-place receptacles.
You might not expect such a literary treasure trove to be tucked away in a corner of a remote Team Valley trading estate. But that’s the surprising location of Borderline Books, a project which collects used and unwanted books and redistributes them to vulnerable and deprived communities in the North East.
One cold, clear winter morning, I met Amina Marix Evans, the woman behind the exciting scheme.
The idea for Borderline Books was born early in the morning of September 11, 2001, when Amina was living in the Netherlands.
She said: “I was a literary agent since 1980 – long before PDFs. So I was receiving parcels of books every day.
“The whole thing came about because I thought: there are all these organisations sending books to places like Africa, and meanwhile we have Africans living in the next street on a shoestring who would love to have some books for their kids.
“We set up in Gateshead in the summer of 2011. At the same time, a publisher I knew contacted me and said ‘We are clearing out our archives – there are about 200 boxes’. So we had this thing and then it got bigger and bigger. And now we have this wonderful space.”
A space appreciated by Sam Connor, 42, a support coordinator for Gateshead Women’s Refuge, which provides a safe place for women and children fleeing difficult situations such as domestic abuse.
She said: “We’ve been coming for years, and Amina always makes people very welcome. It is an absolutely great idea.
“I am a great one for thinking that knowledge is power. Lots of the women do not have any aspirations about their future, so just getting them back into reading a novel can do wonderful things. And it’s something they may not have done before, bearing in mind many of them have been in abusive relationships without much say as to what they do. It is a way of encouraging them to do something for themselves.
“It brings all kinds of benefits. Last year the women were going through a phase where they were enjoying cooking so they went to get some cookery books. Books are quite expensive to buy – especially reference books. Because of this they were able to continue cooking.”
As the name might suggest, Borderline Books thrives on being a truly inclusive service, crossing boundaries of race, colour, age, wealth and health throughout the North East.
The project, which is run by the Kittiwake trust and has a sister project in the Netherlands, donated a record total of 7,106 books in 2014. It shows no sign of slowing down, with funding from places including MG NorthEast, the Hospital of God at Greatham, the Jill Franklin Trust and Gateshead Council.
Visitors donated a further £600 to the cause, and all the initial furnishings were either recycled, freecycled or donated – they only set-up purchases being rubbish bins and a washing-up bowl. From this humble beginning the idea has blossomed, and as it stands in early 2015, Amina and her team of volunteers have supplied books to more than 70 organisations, ranging from autism support groups to prisons to schools.
These come from many sources: direct from publishers, from individuals keen to empty their shelves – and companies such as Nexus who have promised to give books left behind on public transport that have not been claimed.
Amina said: “In spite of the large number of books we gave away in 2014, we nearly always receive more than we give away. We really need to drive home the fact that local organisations supporting marginalised and vulnerable people can come to us and get books totally free of charge.
“There was a woman in Middlesborough who set up a big literacy library last year. There were families with no books at home and she said: ‘Why don’t you join the library?’ and they said ‘But if the baby or the dog mess up the books we are going to have to pay and we cannot afford it’. So they were scared of joining – which is awful.”
“I encourage organisations to come once by themselves and see that I am not kidding, and then come again with a group of people.”
David Palmer, 39, is the office manager for SHAID, a Single Homeless Action Initiative in Durham which provides a peer-support group for men in and around Stanley. He has brought groups to visit the BookSpace several times.
He said: “A lot of our group members have been doing art work. The service has been a great resource on how to paint and draw. We now have a whole wall of canvases made by the men, and some of that has been directly inspired by the books.
“A lot of the people we see are very isolated and don’t have much money. We don’t have many book stores in the Stanley area and many people don’t have the confidence to travel to Newcastle alone. So we go as a group – last year we went four times.”
Danny, 35, first attended a SHAID meeting in 2012. He now volunteers for the organisation, and is on job seekers allowance while he looks for employment. Just one of the men who has directly benefited from the service, Danny has been making use of the selection of art books to improve his painting skills.
He said: “SHAID has really helped me, and now I am volunteering in the office. I might end up doing an admin course, so if I can get books on that it would really help us.”
He added: ‘I’m also interested in fiction and autobiographies, but it can be very difficult to find certain books, I’m hoping to visit later this year and I think I will be spoilt for choice when I do.”
While the overwhelming majority of the organisations benefiting from the project are North East-based, there are exceptions. Limerick Prison, in Ireland, for example, was sent a shipment of books after Amina heard that its library had very few books for women.
The organisation also delivered a collection of large-print books to the Joseph Rowntree retirement village in Scarborough, as well as 700 books to Bradford, where a new BookSpace will be opening in March. It’s hoped that this branching out will lead to more BookSpaces being set up – Amina has dreams for cities like Leeds and Manchester to host their own.
And outside of the UK the project has also made its mark. As part of Gaza Toy Drive, over 200 books are in the process of being sent to children and students in Gaza, and in 2013 300 books were donated to children in a German village.
When it comes to the future, it’s clear that Amina is brimming over with ideas, much like her shelves filled to bursting with books.
There are plans to continue holding Wordplay sessions, creative explorations of language and games to encourage young people who do not enjoy reading to leap that barrier and discover the joy of words. (“In my opinion there should be a lot of laughter attached to word-play”).
A multi-lingual library of 40+ languages is due to open in the next few weeks in Newcastle city centre, where the hope is that volunteers from different communities will take care of the shelves of books in their own language.
She also wants to visit some women’s refuges in the area, to “make them feel better about themselves” through something akin to ‘pampering’, though Amina is loathe to use the word, with all its connotations of idle luxury. (“These are the people who need it most, and they aren’t going to pay a penny for it”, she says, almost defiantly.”)
But realistically, Amina is just one person, and her dreams can’t simply be imagined into reality.
There’s much practical groundwork to cover: paperwork and funding applications, the sorting and stamping of books, and searching for new premises and volunteers.
“While we welcome book donations, they tend to come automatically, while letting organisations know we exist and there really isn’t a ‘catch’ to it, requires a lot of outreach.”
Motivated by the belief that books can transform lives - “free books, free minds” - Amina is determined to ensure that nobody, whatever their background, feels that reading is off-limit: “We are interested in working with Probation Services to have new BookSpaces run by people leaving prison - as Borderline Books offers experience that could prepare people for working in a shop, library, warehouse or office - perhaps combining it with literacy classes, writing groups or other projects.”
For more information please visit www.borderlinebooks.org.