The Lit Limo:

🕔Jul 16, 2009

The big blue bus lumbers through the Kispiox Valley, swaying slightly under the weight of more than 2,000 books. Its peacock-coloured exterior punctuates the greyness of this drizzly day, drawing people from their homes. Driver Dusty Cooper slows the ’87 Ford and cranks open the door with a booming “Hello, there!”

The Lit Limo, often referred to as the “little blue bus,” is a regular visitor to a dozen or so communities in the Hazelton area, extending as far west as Gitanyow and north to Kispiox. It redistributes 1,000 pieces of donated reading material each month on a no-strings-attached basis and—even on this dreary mid-June weekend—gets a reaction similar to the Dickie Dee truck.

“You’d think he was selling ice cream or something,” Literacy on Wheels coordinator Ruth Cooper says about response to the Lit Limo. “It’s so cute. It gives me butterflies.”

Started by the local Learners Opportunity Group Society (LOGS), the bus got rolling about 10 years ago, in an economic climate not unlike today when the forest industry nosedived in the late 1990s—making the LOGS acronym especially appropriate, Ruth notes.

Although most of its funding is based on adult literacy outreach, it takes reading material donations and distributes them free-of-charge to anyone, regardless of need or education: “We just want to treat everybody equally,” Ruth says.

LOGS receives funding from the Ministry of Advanced Education and Labour Market Development through the Community Adult Literacy Program, as well as getting a great deal of community support. The annual Bike for Books event in Hazelton raised $6,000 last year and $3,400 this past June. Last year, LOGS also received support from the Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine and the Upper Skeena Regional Early Childhood Development Committee. This year, Northwest Community College also chipped in with a Partners in Literacy Grant.

“People are amazingly generous,” says Ruth, who spends three days most weeks bouncing alongside her husband on the bus’s regular travel route. The program isn’t funded year-round, but last year it managed to run for 48 weeks despite being only funded for 44. This year, the program has 42 weeks of funding, but takes breaks over Christmas and during extreme weather.

“20 below is where the bus and I draw the line—it doesn’t want to go, and neither do I,” says Dusty.

Hungry to read
So far today, the Lit Limo has spent an hour in Kispiox and rambled through Glen Vowell, hosting 11 visitors and giving away nearly 40 books. “And it’s a slow day,” Dusty adds. On a good day, the bus sees up to 40 visitors from those two communities alone. Literature-hungry residents cram into the vehicle’s small single aisle, which is lined with wooden bookshelves—made by a local high-school shop class—holding everything from Westerns to romances and books about cooking, gardening, crafts and self-help.

The Coopers keep records of who visits the bus and have noticed an alarming statistic: despite being avid readers in their youth, regular book-bus visitors tend to lose interest once they reach their early teens, when hanging out with a book becomes significantly less cool than hanging out with friends. That makes 15-year-old Jodi, a quiet Kispiox resident who visits the bus with her cousin Serena, 8, even more important to keep as a regular customer. Jodi shyly hides behind her long bangs as she flashes the day’s finds: two soft-covers from her favourite series, the Baby Sitters’ Club.

“A lot of the homes here—I’d go so far as to say most—don’t have a lot of reading material. We want to see reading material in every home,” Ruth says.

At first, the Lit Limo didn’t stop in Old Hazelton because of the nearby local library. But when it started parking a few blocks away, the Coopers were surprised by the response.

“I’m a librarian, and I see libraries as wonderful, welcoming places,” Ruth says. “I’ve learned though that libraries are intimidating to a lot of people.” There are other reasons why people don’t visit the library: transportation is difficult for some, particularly those with physical or mental health issues, and libraries require ID and charge late fees.

“Then they want the books back in three weeks!” Dusty adds.
By comparison, the Lit Limo hands the books over without expectation. “We don’t ask for the books back, but we do ask for donations—and people love to donate to the lit limo,” Ruth says. In particular, the bus is always in need of children’s picture books and books with First Nations content.

Dusty is part driver, part greeter and part book-pusher: “A lot of people will start out coming to the back door of the bus,” he says. “I always try to talk to everybody who gets anywhere near the bus.” He stows away books for certain regulars, like a book-on-tape for a visually impaired woman, or some Nancy Drew for a teenage visitor. Then, with a sly grin, he opens a duffle bag to reveal his “secret comics stash” that lures a few that might not otherwise have visited the bus.

“It’s a perfect job for a guy my age,” he says. “It’s just a happy job. I don’t run into people that are mad at me. When they see me, they’re happy to see me.”

A middle-aged man with an enormous, contagious smile stops his car and asks if the bus is open. He leaves with a selection of books and two apples for his grandchildren. “My granddaughter says, ‘my bus,’” he says over his shoulder as he disembarks. “She says, ‘my blue bus.’”

And this, Ruth says, is the payoff: after years of spending time in these communities, the bus is becoming known; it is building relationships. More than just a source of reading material, it is becoming a resource for locals looking to connect with literacy programs, enroll in college programs, or find a tutor. It’s accessible, reliable and, if anything, it’s a cheerful place on an otherwise dreary day.

“Every now and then someone will come and do the ‘happy dance’ around the bus and say, ‘I got into the cooking program in Terrace—thanks for all the cookbooks!’” Ruth says. “Those are the connections we treasure.”