By Lindsey Wojcik
Rush hour had barely concluded when Rosy Kehdi swiped her Metrocard at the 23rd Street R/W subway station in New York City on a Wednesday night in early November. It was nearly 8:30 p.m., and commuters were evenly dispersed with ample breathing room from one end of the platform to the other as they waited for the train.
Kehdi walked through the station with purpose, her burgundy booties clicking on the tiles, to a support beam adorned with peeling blue paint, a newly-installed electronic emergency help point, and a plaque with the station’s location listed on its side. She clutched a copy of Maya Angelou’s Mom & Me & Mom in her manicured hand and lifted her smartphone in the other to capture an Instagram-worthy photo of the book with the station sign in the background. She circled the pillar a few times, snapping photos along the way in search of the perfect photo op. When she felt satisfied with the image, Kehdi walked past the station’s newsstand toward a bench at the end of the platform.
She stopped in front of an empty seat on the bench, where waiting commuters had left every other spot open between them. Balancing the book on the seat’s arm, she took several more photos on her phone as the downtown train rolled into the station. When the R train’s doors opened, Kehdi boarded, leaving the book behind on the empty bench seat.
Abandoning books on trains and platforms throughout New York City is something Kehdi has become accustomed to over the past three years. Kehdi is the founding “book fairy” of Books on the Subway (BOTS), an initiative that aims to share the joy of reading by dropping books in various New York City subway stations for people to find, read, and return back to the subway for others to enjoy.
“I read a lot and I mostly read on the subway,” Kehdi says. “A lot of people read on the subway, despite what everyone says, I see a lot of people reading. [Books on the Subway] is an art project combined with a book project combined with a problem we all have, which is everyone commutes and a lot of people commute long distances. It just felt so natural for it to happen [in New York].”
Kehdi moved to New York from Lebanon in 2012. While trying to land an advertising job, she began following advertising agencies on social media. One day she came across a Facebook post from Leo Burnett, a worldwide advertising agency with offices in New York and London. The post detailed a project that one of its London employees, Hollie Fraser, had started called Books on the Underground (BOTU). “It took me 30 seconds to realize I needed to do this in New York,” Kehdi says.
She contacted Fraser, who gave her blessing and helped Kehdi design a logo and stickers to place on the book covers, which explained the concept to any confused commuters. Fraser also connected Kehdi with authors she knew would be willing to donate their books to the cause. “Hollie had been more established in London with Books on the Underground at that point,” Kehdi says. “It helped move things a lot quicker with her help. It was awesome to get her support because she is the brain behind it.”
In London, Books Are All Around
Books bearing the BOTS sticker began traveling on New York City trains in 2013, a year after Fraser conceived the idea for BOTU in London, where she had lived for seven years. “I lived in East London, but started working in West London, so it was an hour’s commute to work,” Fraser says. “I started reading again and realized how much I missed reading. I kept seeing people with books and thought ‘I want to read that one.’ It felt like this community of people that would read regularly, and I thought it would be so cool if there were books you could find.”
Fraser designed the BOTU sticker and began placing books around the London tube, tweeting images of the books along with information on the locations where she left them. “I was tweeting to myself for a very long time, and then one girl found a book and she was excited, and I thought, ‘That’s it. I’ve succeeded. One person’s found a book and they love it. I’m happy,’” Fraser says.
That happiness, and the feeling of making a difference in commuters’ lives, helped propel a BOTU expansion. Fraser teamed up with authors and partnered with publishers to create campaigns that generated excitement among London’s commuters. For example, a campaign called “Love on the Underground” with Mills & Boon, a U.K.-based publisher of romance and fiction novels, gained a lot of attention. For it, Fraser temporarily changed the stickers to say “Love on the Underground,” which she placed on the publisher’s romance novels, and distributed the books during the week of Valentine’s Day. She continued doing similar campaigns, like coordinating book drops around the time when movies inspired by the prose were released in theaters.
As the project earned media coverage and gained a following in London, it caught the attention of Cordelia Oxley. “I was brought up and around books, and read from an early age, part of that was probably because my dad has a bookshop,” Oxley says. “I always helped with displays and often with book launches too—the Harry Potter ones were probably the most exciting. When I caught a glimpse of Books on the Underground nearly four years ago, it was on Twitter, and I was so drawn to it that I contacted Hollie directly to see if I could help.”
Oxley helped Fraser grow the BOTU social media channels, in addition to helping distribute books on the tube. Fraser and Oxley worked together for a few years before Fraser and her husband moved to New York a year ago, leaving BOTU in Oxley’s hands.
“When Hollie was here, it was just the two of us who would look after the book drops, which sometimes meant dropping 100 books a day,” Oxley says. “I soon realized when Hollie left that in order to do more book drops and work with more publisher and authors, I would need some help.”
Keen on reaching every corner of London, Oxley began recruiting volunteers that she dubbed “book fairies.” In New York, Kehdi and Fraser, who have full-time advertising jobs, teamed up to drop books across the city’s boroughs. “We live in very different locations, which gets more books spread out between us,” Fraser says.
The duo pick one title per day and drop five to 20 copies during their rush hour commute, though sometimes, a longer lunch affords an opportunity to deliver that day’s book to a nearby station. They try to diversify their choice of stations, but definitely have their favorites. Fraser tends to revisit the Union Square station often, while Kehdi favors the 23rd Street R/W station. They have concentrated their efforts in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but have also made a book drop in Queens. They would also like to extend the operation to the Bronx and Staten Island in the future.
“I definitely make sure that if I’m going somewhere I don’t normally go, I take a book with me,” Fraser says. “We have occasionally done a specific location based on the book.”
The book fairies take photos of each book with hints at the location where commuters can find it in the background—usually the station’s name or a recognizable feature of the platform—and post those photos to Twitter and Instagram. New Yorkers hoping to score free reading material with a BOTS sticker on it have to be quick though. “They get picked up within five minutes at most,” Kehdi says.
Shared Book Fairies
A copy of Maya Angelou’s Mom & Me & Mom disappeared quickly when Kehdi left it at the 23rd Street station. The book, along with BOTU in London, was featured in a trending story on Facebook that day because Oxley had recruited a familiar face as a book fairy. Emma Watson chose Mom & Me & Mom as the pick of the month for her online feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf. In a partnership with BOTU, Our Shared Shelf agreed to provide copies of Angelou’s book to distribute on the London tube. Not surprisingly, Watson wanted to get in on the fun. The actress left copies of the book with personalized notes tucked inside around London, and documented her journey as a book fairy on her Instagram account.
The response was phenomenal. “Emma was the perfect choice [to partner with], as I had been following her book club Our Shared Shelf and seen it grow,” Oxley says. “I felt that it was a great opportunity for both BOTU and Our Shared Shelf to gain exposure but also have some fun. We took our time to plan it, and Emma was a fantastic book fairy.”
Following the success of the partnership between Our Shared Shelf and BOTU, Oxley contacted Fraser and Kehdi to extend the event to New York. “Cordelia reached out to us about Emma Watson coming to New York to drop books on the subway, and we jumped at the chance to work with her,” Fraser says. “The date happened to coincide with Election Day. It worked out perfectly because it kind of had a higher purpose to her leaving the books on the subway.”
The day after Donald Trump was elected, Watson tweeted:
Today I am going to deliver Maya Angelou books to the New York subway. Then I am going to fight even harder for all the things I believe in.— Emma Watson (@EmmaWatson) November 9, 2016
Watson dropped 10 copies of Mom & Me & Mom around New York, while the rest of the BOTS crew delivered 30 on their own. Oxley even flew to New York to help with the distribution. “It was the first time I’d been to New York and I loved it,” Oxley says. “The subway is completely different, but quite easy to get your head around. I landed on the night of the election, and woke to the news of President-elect Trump. So it was strange to be running around frantically taking pictures of books in lots of different places, but I’m so glad it gave people a good news story.”
“It got a lot of media attention, and people were running around trying to find the books, especially the ones that Emma dropped herself, so people went wild over it,” Kehdi says. “The partnership with Emma Watson opened a lot of doors for us and exposed us to a lot of new people, so we’re hoping we can grow from there and work with more influencers.”
BOTS worked with another influencer about a week after Watson served as a book fairy in New York. On the publication day for actress Anna Kendrick’s memoir Scrappy Little Nobody, the book fairies hit the streets of New York with 100 copies, 20 of which were signed. “Anna Kendrick was in [New York] to launch her book and we knew the event had sold out, so we approached her publishers and said we thought it’d be cool if some of her fans could find the books on the subway that day,” Fraser says.
In London, BOTU book fairies distributed 100 unsigned copies of Scrappy Little Nobody. A packed book tour schedule did not allow Kendrick to leave the books herself, but she did tweet about it so New Yorkers and Londoners were aware that copies would be available on the trains.
Coming To A Station Near You
While celebrity fairies and authors have helped BOTS broaden its reach—its social media following has quadrupled since the beginning of November—the duo is still focused on its core values and mission. “We want to get people reading,” Kehdi says. “It’s about decreasing the barrier of getting people to read and doing something good. We never want to filter books, although we avoid religious, political or controversial ones, because we want to allow the self-published author who doesn’t have a publicist behind them to sell their books. We want to help the ones who are starting out and who just published their novel.”
“We get a lot of authors themselves saying, ‘Hey this is my first book,’” Fraser adds. “It’s very endearing and it feels so good to be able to provide that for them. No matter where the brand goes and where the market goes, we want to ensure this aspect of it is intact, and we never filter books or authors. We always want to be that grassroots project.”
Publishers and authors interested in having a book dropped in New York can email BOTS. Fraser and Kedhi recommend including information about the book, how many books an author or publisher is interested in distributing, if they have a timeframe for the drop in mind, and any creative ideas they might have for promotional tie-ins or campaigns. Authors and publishers pay a fee to have the BOTS stickers printed, and Fraser and Kehdi cover their travel costs. “The plan isn’t to make any money from it, it’s just to basically pay for the sticker cost because stickers are surprisingly expensive,” Fraser says.
Kedhi has lost track of how many authors she’s worked with since launching BOTS, but she estimates it to be in the hundreds. Though both Kehdi and Fraser would like to have read every book they have dropped on the train, they don’t possibly have the time to do so. “I wish,” Fraser says. “I’d have to be a really quick reader.”
“We can’t possibly read them all because we do one book every day,” Kedhi adds. “We honestly have more books in my apartment than food right now.”
“I literally have a cupboard in my kitchen reserved for books,” Fraser quips.
Books may be overflowing in their apartments, but it’s clear the positive message Kedhi and Fraser champion is resonating with commuters worldwide. Similar sister projects have popped up around the globe. Books on the Metro was established in Washington, D.C. in 2014. That same year, Fraser launched Books on the L in Chicago in association with Chicago Ideas Week. The Chicago project is currently only promoted during Chicago Ideas Week, however Chicagoans have reached out, offering to run it. “It’s not a constant, year-round thing in Chicago, but it’s definitely happening,” Fraser says.
In 2016, Books on the Rail was founded in Melbourne, Australia. “So many places are receptive to this concept,” Fraser says. “We have been in talks with people in Norway, Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Delhi, and Athens about helping them set up in their cities. So watch this space.”
On a smaller scale, Kedhi says she would like to see BOTS grow its following and exposure. “I also want to see people search for the books and have it become something that all New Yorkers want to find,” she says. “We also want it to have meaning beyond just giving away books. We would like to tie it into other philanthropic causes and raise awareness on different topics where applicable.”
Fraser believes the future of BOTS is female. “I am a huge advocate of feminism, and I don’t want Books on the Subway to be all about female authors, but 85 percent of our following is women and more than 60 percent of our fairies are women,” she says. “I think we can really leverage that. I think we can make something bigger out of this and become a platform for women. I absolutely love the idea of hosting some inspirational book talks by female authors. But we’ll see. Rosy and I have lots of exciting ideas.”