Delma and Dalilah say they like to read so much, they've fallen asleep with books in their hands. Credit: Nancy Cook-Monroe for the San Antonio Report

The State of Texas hosts a book fair at the Capitol. San Antonio’s takes over Central Library. Universities lean toward literary festivals. At any of these events, authors discuss ideas; the elite sips wine at receptions; and at public events, publishers and booksellers display for sale their hottest wares.

At the Book Fair at the Courtyard at Haven For Hope Tuesday, the smell of dinnertime stir-fry filled the room where books were spread out on tables by category, free for the taking, six per customer. Homeless women and men staying for a limited time in Haven’s Courtyard – an outdoor area where the homeless are offered safety and meals – lined up at the book fair door awaiting the 4 p.m. start like computer geeks impatient for the next iPhone outside Apple stores. About 150 eventually came in.

Zakariah talks about the difficulty of coming from a half-Christian, half-Muslim family with St. Mark’s volunteers Patsy Jordt and Mike Duffy.
Zakariah talks about the difficulty of coming from a half-Christian, half-Muslim family with St. Mark’s volunteers Patsy Jordt and Mike Duffy. Credit: Nancy Cook-Monroe for the San Antonio Report

Books from classics to current bestsellers covered fiction, biography, non-fiction, mystery, poetry, and spirituality. In mid-summer, co-chairs Susan Guess and Trinka McGehee of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church began asking church members to donate books, save violent tomes and scandalous scenes.

Parishioner and Wings Press publisher Bryce Milligan brought boxes of Wings’ remainders.

“I was trying to push poetry,” he said afterward, grinning impishly. “I found you can visually match a person to a book. After they read two or three lines, they look up and say, ‘Yep.’”

In the fiction section, readers asked for Dean Koontz, John Grisham, Stephen King, Nicholas Patterson, and other writers of detective stories, mysteries, and thrillers. They picked up books, and read the back covers, sometimes keeping them and sometimes returning them to the stack. One gentleman in a half-buttoned shirt found what he wanted quickly.

“I know these,” he said. “I read them in prison.”

Conversations guests had with each other and the volunteers ranged from whether it’s better to read the book first and then see the movie, or the other way around, to more personal matters evoked by the reader’s choices.

“You go to bed mad at God,” said a lady who described herself as knowing her way around books, “and wake up and say, ‘Sh–, he’s still there!

“But thank God he is.”

A guest interested in history took Orphan Train: A Novel after Guess recommended it because it elaborates on a little-known part of U. S. history.

“She came by before we left to show me she had already read nearly a quarter of the book and loved it,” Guess said.

McGehee said after a man told her he had chosen his book, she reminded him he could take five more.

“He was shocked and thrilled, and a smile lit up his face,” she said. “Another man told me that he and his wife and son wanted to start their own Bible study and loved these books as they helped them learn and answer people’s questions. I feel the people who came really love books and enjoy reading.”

Bibles were the most popular of spiritual volumes, though guests also walked out with books on Christianity and religions of the world.

Marla has written stories, a novel, poetry and songs, and sang a few beautiful notes.
Marla has written stories, a novel, poetry and songs, and sang a few beautiful notes at the event. Credit: Nancy Cook-Monroe for the San Antonio Report

A short woman with occasional teeth held up Courage to Change as she departed and smiled. “I need to change.”

The Book Fair at the Courtyard at Haven For Hope started when a St. Mark’s volunteer was checking in homeless guests for lunch and noticed that several carried books. She also noticed that the Courtyard bookshelf was empty and mentioned the conundrum to lunch team leader Pat Bridwell.

Bridwell, a community activist, avid Haven volunteer, and St. Mark’s parishioner, told the volunteer, “Okay, we’ll have a book fair and you’re in charge.”

The initial fair in January was so well received that planning for the second one began soon thereafter.

The initiative was well received at St. Mark’s as well. While members concocted the event, the Rev. Beth Knowlton, St. Mark’s rector of two years, pointed out that it advances the church’s mission.

“Our core vocation is to feed San Antonio with the bread of life,” she said. “The book fair allows us to be in relationship with those who are hungry for knowledge and meaning. Poverty often creates hunger beyond physical needs, and this is a way to meet that need.”

Many Courtyard guests asked when the next fair would be. Many were disappointed when they learned it would be several months and asked if “leftovers” could be placed in the bookshelf. Though nearly 1,000 books were taken, several full boxes remained and will keep the shelf stocked for the time being.

Shanna Salazar, operations manager at the Courtyard, was gratified the book fair reached guests on several levels.

“And from a trauma and recovery standpoint, reading and getting away from your own reality helps (Haven guests) decompress and move from where they’re at,” she said.

One of the last readers to visit the fair left smiling, a stack of books in her arms.  She said to no one in particular: “I’m so grateful. So very, very grateful.”

Nancy Cook-Monroe

Nancy Cook-Monroe is a local freelance writer and public relations consultant. She has written about San Antonio arts and civic scenes since she could hold a pencil.