MOTT HAVEN — As customers shuffled out of the C-Town Supermarket on Third Avenue Wednesday morning, their arms loaded with groceries, Bill Ohl was stepping in.
His arms were filled with books.
Ohl, a reading teacher at the middle school across the street, had come to drop off two small bins crammed with picture books and novels that anyone in the neighborhood was free to take home and enjoy. His stack included selections from the popular "Judy Moody" series, a Michael Jordan biography, Dr. Seuss classics and a Spanish-language "Harry Potter" tome.
Fifteen minutes later, the first bin was empty.
The free book program is a way to promote literacy in a neighborhood where the will to read is sometimes stifled by a shortage of books, Ohl said.
"The kids in the wealthier suburbs, you go into their house, they have shelves of books," said Ohl, who runs the neighborhood reading program out of MS 223, the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology, on 145th Street between Third Avenue and Willis Avenue.
"But for a kid in the South Bronx, a book is a luxury."
For the past year, Ohl has delivered books every other week to a few spots around the school: a few bodegas, the C-Town, and a health clinic. Everyone from the community — not just MS 223 students and their families — are invited to take the books, which they can choose to borrow or keep.
"They ask me if it’s for sale," says Ali Saleh, an employee at one of the book drop-offs, Reem II Deli at 146th Street and Willis Avenue. "I say, 'No, it’s free if you read it. But if you bring it back, more people can read.' "
Saleh sometimes sets aside a few beginner books to take home to his four young children, who only recently arrived in the United States and are still learning to read in English.
Saleh, along with employees at the other bodega and the grocery, have noticed something curious in recent months: old paperbacks and picture books have begun to materialize in the empty book bins – before Ohl arrives with his refills. Their customers, they realized, have started to treat the free bins as informal lending libraries with an unwritten rule: take what you want, leave what you can.
"They take only one [book] with them," says Leo Mesa, a worker at Firehouse Deli, referring to several of his customers. "But they’ll bring back like three."
On Wednesday, at the BronxCare health clinic at Third Avenue and 145th Street, Ohl had just set down his plastic tub of books when a young boy began to scour the collection. The boy, Gerald Pigatt, a second grader at nearby PS 150, quickly found a book he liked — "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" — and dove into it.
His mother’s friend, Adele Hodge, said Gerald has already devoured most of the good titles in his small school library. The few public libraries around Mott Haven, she said, are overcrowded and under-stocked.
"Libraries don’t come equipped the way they used to," said Hodge.
In December, Books in the Hood, the last remaining independent bookstore in the Bronx — and the only bookstore in the South Bronx — closed its doors for good.
So rather than rely on local bookstores, Ohl must turn to long-distance donors for free books.
After reading a news article about literacy efforts at MS 223, parents and teachers at Westlake Middle School in Westchester County organized book drives for the Bronx school. So far, they have sent more than a dozen boxes filled with hundreds of books.
The school’s biggest book benefactor is Elsa Brule, a native of the Midwest who splits her time between northern Michigan and the Upper East Side.
About a year ago, Brule discovered a request for books that Ohl had posted on the website Donors Choose. Since then, by Ohl’s count, she has ordered nearly 10,000 new books for the school.
"We can’t afford to waste any gray matter on illiteracy," said Brule, a grandmother of 10 who has also stocked school libraries in Michigan. "We’re wasting all of those good minds if we don’t give them this knowledge."
The school keeps most of the donated books for its own libraries. It sends its gently used and surplus copies out into the neighborhood.
The idea is not just to make books more accessible, but also to encourage local families to read together, said Ramon Gonzalez, the principal of MS 223, who dreamed up the program.
"The idea is to make reading a community experience," he said.
The school has even designated a specific time — 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursdays — as a "community reading night." It is in the process of building a website where students will be able to post pictures of themselves on Thursdays poring over books with their families.
Inside Reem II Deli, Claudette Wright was waiting to buy a pack of gum when she spotted a free book bin. Her daughter is a sixth-grader at MS 223, but she had never heard of the program. She dug into the tub and pulled out "Zoo Vets" for her 4-year-old son, then promised to read it with him Thursday.
"I don’t know of any other schools that offer books to the community like that," Wright said. "I’d like to see more of that."