Subterranean Fairy Dust: An interview with the founders of Books On The Subway

Photo of Hollie Fraser and Rosy Kehdi, two inspiring young women behind the non-for-profit organisation of Books On The Subway (BOTS)
Photo of Hollie Fraser and Rosy Kehdi, two inspiring young women behind the non-for-profit organisation of Books On The Subway (BOTS)

Hollie Fraser is a Book Fairy. In 2012 she began dropping books on the London Underground to make people fall in love with reading again, inspiring Rosy Kehdi to do the same on the New York Subway. The women now run the not-for-profit organisation, Books on the Subway (BOTS) together, with Books on the Underground (BOTU) safely in the hands of Cordelia Oxley.

With seven Books On… iterations around the world so far, celebrity collaborations and potential plans to launch a female empowerment platform, the Book Fairies are an inspirational lot. We caught up with Rosy and Hollie to hear about how they are managing to turn the daily commute into a literary scavenger hunt.

The goal of BOTS and BOTU is to get more people reading, do you think that you are achieving this?

We’d like to think so! A lot of people who have picked up the books posted back to us about how they’ve enjoyed the read, or that the book was just what they needed during a rough patch they’re going through. By making books more accessible to people, we’re hoping that our mission is working. Not everyone can afford buying books, and not everyone goes to the public library. This is an easy way to reach masses, and reignite the love of reading in people.

How do you choose the books to drop, is there specific criteria they must meet?

We currently drop all books that are donated to us. We decided that since we live in such a diverse city we wanted to leave books that appeal to all. We don’t want to be the ones who limit what New Yorkers read! But we do try and avoid that are controversial (religious, political) and any books that are too specific (medical, business etc.).

Is there a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes on? How do you cope with juggling this and your full time jobs?

There’s lots of emails and scheduling and even more actual Book Dropping!! We also try to keep track of people posting about us and comments on our social channels, and aim to reply to most.

We just do it around work, so we end up emailing a lot of evening and weekends too! Sometimes it feels like a second full-time job, but we love it, so it doesn’t feel like work!

OffTheRails_BookClub

What was the largest obstacle that you had to overcome to launch this organisation and how did you tackle it?

Probably the sheer massiveness of the subway! We felt that we were only targeting a small section, and not able to reach people in areas we don’t frequently visit so we’ve recruited some volunteers to help us out with our Book Drops. They’re all over the city, from the Bronx to Coney Island and Queens. We now reach more people and [they] allow us to drop even more books (and lift some weigh off our shoulders and backs! — quite literally!)

How do you feel about e-readers and the impact that they are having on physical books?

There is no denying that e-readers are much more convenient for many people, and we think people should use whatever medium they think will help them read more. That’s what matters after all. We have both dabbled in e-readers and audiobooks, but ultimately, we didn’t feel like they matched the experience of reading a physical book. And nothing, NOTHING, beats the feeling of browsing a bookstore, and picking your next read!

The organisation has received a huge amount of publicity recently from your collaborations with Emma Watson and Anna Kendrick – that must have been exciting! Can you tell us about how these came to pass?

Cordelia, from Books on the Underground reached out to do the partnership with Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf book club and they wanted to get involved, as did Emma herself. So that was absolutely fantastic and we had the pleasure of having Emma in NY as a Book Fairy for the day too. The Anna Kendrick partnership, Rosy and myself organized. She had a sell-out book tour taking place in NY and we knew loads of her fans would be in town, so we thought why not give them copies on the day, if they can’t get into the book signing. So she signed a few copies and we were able to drop them on the subway.

Do you have any advice that you could give to entrepreneurs interested in starting a non-profit?

Have a clear mission and a vision. It’s very easy to get distracted with all the opportunities and ways to grow the project. But by sticking to what we truly believe in, we can leverage the opportunities that come our way and make them work for what we want to stand for and be about.

What are your top three favourite books?

R: I don’t know why this is always such a hard question for me! I can’t really pick! Here are some of my favourites:

  • Harry Potter Series – J.K. Rowling
  • Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  • The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

H: Me too, it’s such a hard question! I love so many books, but these just really stand out for me as the books I recommend to ALL of my friends:

  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri


Graphics thanks to Hollie and Rosy.

Alice Rich

Contributor

New Zealand-born Alice Rich is a newly-minted digital nomad. She loves getting involved in community projects and was a co-founder of CreativeMornings/Kuala Lumpur, a creative lecture series. A registered Personal Trainer, Alice loves anything active, particularly when there is mud involved. "My favourite aspect about London is Big Ben."

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