Maiden ride on Albany’s first Book Bikes

ALBANY — We left a small footnote in Albany’s literary history.

Dwayne Killings and I rode the city’s first Book Bikes on their maiden voyage last Tuesday.

The children’s books arrived safely, no worse for wear.

The riders, on the other hand, were a bit frayed and stained with perspiration after a 3.5-mile trek from Pine Hills to the city’s South End in a summer swelter in the low 90s.

“Man, that was a workout,” said Killings, the head men’s basketball coach at the University at Albany, where I also work as the head of the New York State Writers Institute.

I nodded in the affirmative to my friend, a good sport whom I roped into this inaugural Book Bikes trip.

“I felt like an old-school ice cream man going down the road,” Killings said.

To me, it felt like riding a bike with a refrigerator strapped to the front. Book Bikes have two wheels in front to distribute the weight and one in back. They are quite heavy, balky in tight turns, but with a sturdy frame and elegantly designed cabinet bookcase. They’re not cheap. Custom-made by Haley Tricycles in Philadelphia, they cost up to $7,500 apiece with special options added.

Also known as Books on Bikes, Bibliocycles, BookCycles and Library on Wheels, they are crisscrossing dozens of cities this summer from Los Angeles to Boston. Most are operated by staff at public libraries.

The Albany Book Bikes, which are small mobile libraries, were purchased by CDPHP. They are operated by Grassroot Givers, a not-for-profit organization that distributes donated household items, clothing and free books to low-income families. They promote literacy by giving away children’s books in underserved neighborhoods.

“We’re pleased to support an initiative that will promote summer reading in a whimsical and engaging way,” said Kathy Leyden, vice president of community engagement for CDPHP. It’s part of promoting healthy habits in kids and the Book Bikes carry toothbrushes, toothpaste and educational information on oral health provided by Delta Dental.

“We’re very grateful to CDPHP and we’re excited to launch our new Book Bikes,” said Mary Partridge-Brown, co-director of Grassroot Givers.

“We want to encourage kids to keep reading over the summer,” said co-director Roberta Sandler. They help to stem summer’s so-called “reading slump” when youngsters fail to pick up a book during school break. Grassroots Givers has distributed roughly one-half million donated books since 2009.

Partridge-Brown and Sandler rode the bikes around the block and warned there is a learning curve because they do not handle like a typical bicycle.

Hey, how hard could it be? We soon learned.

We were an unlikely pair. Killings, 41, is 6-foot-3, lean and fit, a former college basketball player. I’m 63 and 5-foot-8, with a beer gut and 20 pounds past my prime. My glory days came in rec league hoops in the mid-1980s. He’s Black and I’m white.

Some pedestrians did double-takes. A couple drivers honked or gunned the engine as they cut around our slow pace.

Fortunately, most of the route to our destination – a day camp run by the Boys & Girls Club of the Capital Area at Ezra Prentice Homes on South Pearl Street near the Port of Albany – was either flat or downhill.

We practically had to stand on the pedals to inch forward.

“What did I get us into DK?” I yelled to Killings, who goes by his initials.

“We’ll be alright,” he said in a reassuring tone.

He has long legs and we couldn’t get the seat raised high enough, so his knees were akimbo as he pedaled.

We made our way over to Madison Avenue and rode along Washington Park. A couple folks grinned or pointed. The bookcase cabinet on the Book Bikes are painted purple with the words: “Books on Board.”

As we crossed Lark Street, the skunky scent of weed wafted past my nose. All along the way, I smelled the smoke of ganja. The Albany!

It took a while to figure out that the bike’s five speeds went from 1 as the hardest and 5 as the easiest to pedal. That confused us. When we hit the steep descent of Madison Avenue, I shouted back to DK: “Don’t expect the brakes to stop you right away.” The extra weight made the disc brakes slow to respond.

“Do not worry. I’ve got my feet!” he shouted back. He was so tall, he just put his sneakers down on the blacktop like the Flintstone mobile for added braking power.

Yabba dabba doo!

On the long, flat stretch of South Pearl Street, we passed a makeshift memorial of votive candles and brandy bottles marking another victim of gun violence. “Reminds me of North Philly,” Killings said.

We arrived at the pocket park across from Ezra Prentice Homes. The kids immediately swarmed around Killings and his Book Bike from him. The father of two, he has a relaxed way with kids.

Damari Birmingham, 10, beamed as he helped Killings and Partridge-Brown arrange books on the shelves of the fold-out bookcase.

With a grant, Grasroot Givers purchased numerous hardcover children’s books from Book House featuring main characters who are Black and brown, and illustrated and written by authors of color.

It was clear that representation matters when the kids, predominantly people of color, zeroed in and claimed copies of books with children who looked like on the cover.

A young girl, who was Black, picked “Nina: A Story of Nina Simone,” illustrated by Christian Robinson and written by Traci Todd. She did not know who Simone was, but she liked the regal, bejeweled Black woman on the cover.

I asked 10-year-old Ivan Cruz why he chose “The Polar Bear Son: An Inuit Tale” by Lydia Dabcovich. “I like snow and the polar bear looked cute,” he said.

“The Book Bikes are awesome. The kids loved getting to pick out a book,” said Jimmy Bulmer, the director of the Boys & Girls Clubs, who oversees the free day camp at Ezra Prentice with the support of the Albany Housing Authority. “Our kids wouldn’t get to enjoy a camp experience otherwise.”

As the kids leafed through their new books and enjoyed a freeze pop and cookie, Killings hopped in a van to catch a flight. They stored his Book Bike from him, while I prepared to go solo.

There was mention of a pedal-assist feature, but I figured we didn’t need it. At the foot of Madison Avenue, the long, steep incline was daunting. I fiddled with the controls. Power on. I started pedaling and felt like Mark Ruffalo transforming into The Hulk. I cruised up Madison, past Washington Park and arrived at the Grassroot Givers office. I hardly broke a sweat.

“Wow. You got here fast,” said Partridge-Brown, who rode in a mini-van with Sandler.

Partridge-Brown and Sandler talked about the city parks and festivals they plan to visit with the Book Bikes over the summer. They need volunteer cyclists and asked if I’d do it again.

“Absolutely,” I said. “Now that I know how the pedal assist works.”

Paul Grondahl is director of the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany and a former Times Union reporter. He can be reached at

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