Within minutes of parking in the mountain village of Hurley, N.M. (pop. 1,464), Fred Barraza opens the bookmobile door and welcomes one eager patron after another.
“How are you today?” he asks Karin Wade, 71, who boards the bus with two bagfuls of mysteries to swap for new ones.
As Barraza and Wade chat about the weather, Shawdail Hestand, 6, steps inside with her grandmother and heads straight for the children’s shelves to load up on books about ants, alligators, rabbits and palominos, while Roseanne Griggs searches the nonfiction titles for a book about the Delaware Indians.
“I’d like to know as much as I can about my people,” Griggs, 59, tells Barraza. No books about the American Indian tribe are on board so Barraza offers to bring them on his next visit or to mail them to Griggs.
For 26 years, Barraza has maneuvered the New Mexico State Library bookmobile over steep and twisting mountain roads to deliver books to people in the state’s isolated desert towns. Along the route, he parks at post offices, cafes, grocery stores, and community and senior centers. He spends two nights a week at motels on the 325-mile route.
“The more rural we go, the more books people check out,” says Barraza, 52, who lives in Silver City (pop. 10,545) where the bookmobile office is located.
Among several thousand patrons who regularly use the bookmobile are ranchers Irving and Lessie Porter of Weed, who live 65 miles from the nearest library in Alamogordo (pop. 35,582). Each month, the Porters fill a box with books to read until Barraza returns.
“Fred travels a long way to get here,” says Irving, 83. “He’s a dandy guy. He encourages young people to read and orders any books they’re interested in.”
Another patron, Shirley Watson, lives in the mining ghost town of Chloride. “In winter, we have heavy snows, but the bookmobile still makes it,” says Watson, 93, who relishes large-print mysteries.
Though the library on wheels is snug, it holds about 3,500 books—from Mark Twain classics to Dean Koontz thrillers—and audio recordings and videotapes on slanted shelves so the inventory stays put over bumps and around hairpin curves.
When Barraza began the bookmobile job in 1981, he was living the life of a starving artist, having recently graduated with an art degree from Western New Mexico University in Silver City. At the time, he assumed the job would be temporary, but as it turned out, it became a full-time career for the former U.S. Marine, who is married and has two grown sons.
“Getting to know people is the most rewarding part of my job,” says Barraza, who now uses his artistic talents to illustrate books. “A lot of us have become good friends.”
Some patrons bring him homemade bread or cake, while others serve as models for his pencil drawings. For 23 years, Barraza has drawn portraits of patrons to illustrate the bookmobile’s quarterly schedules. “Everybody asks, ‘Who’s going to be next?’” Barraza understands people’s affection for the mobile library because he borrowed books from a bookmobile as a young boy in nearby Santa Clara (pop. 1,944). “Not long ago we were weeding out some books and I saw my name on a card,” he says. “It was an art book that I had checked out in 1965.”
After the Hurley stop, Barraza switches off the lights, folds up the step and rolls down the road. Tomorrow, he’ll open the library door in another mountain village and welcome more patrons and friends