Futuristic Mobile Library to Debut Downtown

By Olivia Scheck on September 8, 2011 1:56pm | Updated on September 8, 2011 3:15pm

MANHATTAN — A futuristic mobile library will debut this weekend at Lower Manhattan’s New Amsterdam Market.

The Uni, as it’s been dubbed by creators, is comprised of 144 detachable cubbies that can be arranged in various configurations to act as the shelves of an eye-catching portable reading room.

“Everybody uses folding tables and chairs for outdoor events and we were just hoping to improve on that,” co-creator Leslie Davol, 42, said of the design, which features hundreds of cone-shaped covers for book-filled cubbyholes that can be removed and turned into benches and tables. They also protect the books from inclement weather.

She and her husband Sam Davol, 41 — a cellist for “The Magnetic Fields” and former New York City Legal Aid attorney — spearheaded the project through Street Lab, their Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to creating programs for public spaces.

The Uni will offer free-to-read books — curated to complement the setting — for children and adults.

Leslie said she and her husband were inspired to create the Uni after setting up a pop-up library in Boston’s Chinatown — the first library in the area since the 1950’s, according to the project's website.

“We were just so struck by the impact that it had on people… being able to see it on the street and having it be part of their daily lives,” she explained. “We wanted to figure out a way that it could serve more neighborhoods.”

So the couple enlisted architecture firm Höweler + Yoon to design a portable, open-air library and posted a proposal to the fundraising website Kickstarter. Thirty days later, the project had garnered 239 donations, ranging from $5 to $1,000, for a total of $20,822.

“It was a beautiful thing,” Leslie said. “That enabled us to buy the materials to build the first structure.”

A group of MIT grad students signed on to build the Uni and were making strong progress as of Thursday, according to Leslie.

While not all of the cubbies are expected to be finished, Leslie said they would have enough to begin “kicking the tires” on their new outdoor reading room at the New Amsterdam Market on Sunday.

The Uni is scheduled to make another stop at The Brooklyn Book Festival the following weekend, before beginning a “full-throttle” tour around New York City next spring. It will remain in the city on a permanent basis, bringing books to parks and plazas and providing a space for readings, lectures and even movie screenings, Leslie said.

Though the Davols now reside in Boston, Leslie said they feel a “strong sense of connection to lower Manhattan,” where the Uni will appear on Sunday, having lived in the neighborhood for many years.

“Our kids were born there,” she explained. “We just thought [debuting the Uni there] would be a great way to revisit the neighborhood.”

While Leslie noted that the Uni’s launch date was not intended to coincide with the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, the former Assistant Vice President at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, said it might turn out to be a fitting occasion for the debut.

“Everybody’s going to need different things on that day,” Leslie said. “As someone who lived there at that time, there’s nothing that I’d rather do than go to a market, shop for vegetables and read a book.”

The Uni will be on display from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the New Amsterdam Market, the old Fulton Fish Market, on South Street and Peck Slip. Visitors are invited to donate books — especially those that are good for browsing, like poetry, photography, and kids picture books.

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