Books that travel on public transport waiting for you to pick them up, take them home and read sounds like a booklover’s dream. It’s more than just a dream thanks to Ali Berg and Michelle Kalus who founded Books on the Rail in Melbourne after being impressed by London’s Books on the Underground. I’ve been intrigued by Books on the Rail, so when the opportunity came up to chat with Michelle and Ali, I jumped at the chance to find out more.
NLK: How did you and Ali meet?
Ali: We have known each other for over two decades. We first met at the ripe age of five years old while holidaying with our families in Marysville. It wasn’t, however, love at first sight! At the time I only had eyes for Michelle’s older and, seemingly, more sophisticated sister. Two years later, Michelle moved schools and was placed in my class. Without the distracting allure of Michelle’s sibling, it didn’t take long for us to develop a very close bond and our lives have been inextricably linked ever since.
Michelle: We have travelled together, founded and captained a netball team, read and frantically discussed tens and tens of books simultaneously, celebrated countless birthdays and milestones and simply revelled in each other’s presence on a weekly basis. We are very dear to one another.
NLK: How many books have you unleashed through Books on the Rail? Are you just operating in Melbourne and how many book ninjas are involved?
Ali: There are now over 4,000 books in circulation all over Australia. Thanks to our amazing and very passionate Book Ninjas (over 600 and counting), we have been able to launch Books on the Rail (BOTR) Australian wide. We now have books circulating in all major cities and many rural and regional towns.
Michelle: Together with our Book Ninjas, we now also have our Book Senseis. These are individuals who have subscribed to receive a surprise, new release book each month. The premise is a ‘blind date with a book’ and includes genre diverse titles. This enables us to bring the thrill of stumbling over a surprise book on the bus / train / tram to your mailbox. Recently, we hosted a book club event on the Frankston Line to discuss Redeemable by Erwin James, our November subscription book. It was such a fun morning filled with really interesting conversation and bubbly book worms.
NLK: What was the motivation for establishing Books on the Rail?
Ali: The idea for BOTR started two years ago, when I was working at ad agency Leo Burnett in London. One of my co-workers was Hollie Belton, the founder of “Books on the Underground” in the UK. I instantly recognised Hollie’s concept as ‘so Melbourne’ and decided that when I returned to her hometown, I would start it there.
Michelle: Ali approached me to join forces and we started in April by leaving our own books and books purchased from second-hand bookstores and charity shops on trains and trams. Our underlying philosophy is celebrating and sharing the love of reading while promoting new and notable authors and publishers. We wanted to conduct this within a ‘random act of kindness’ model. As unsuspecting commuters stumble across free books, we hope to brighten and enrich their days. Targeting trains, trams and buses seemed like the best way to reach out to people en masse.
NLK: Have there been any issues with public transport organisations?
Ali: To begin with, BOTR operated under the radar. We were stealthily leaving books on public transport services. Since gaining momentum, we have been given the tick of approval by a number of transport providers including Yarra Trams, Metro and Translink Brisbane. Each of these organisations have briefed all staff about the books, ensuring that they stay in circulation and not end up in lost property!
NLK: What is your vision for Books on the Rail?
Ali: We hope to continue to expand our geographical reach and the number of books hitting public transport services. We want to create a movement where the community drives the initiative, rather than just us. We’re already starting to see this happen on social media, which is very exciting! Hopefully in the future, every time you travel on public transport you’ll spot a Books on the Rail book! We’re also in the process of looking at developing technology to geo-track exactly how far our books travel.
Michelle: We want to generate conversation, creating a community where people can connect and share stories and recommend books. This community doesn’t just exist online any more, but now with our book club events, people from all walks of life are meeting with a shared thread – a love of reading.
NLK: What are some of your recent favourite reads and can you recommend any books?
Ali: We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I don’t want to give anything away – so all I can say is it’s enchanting, witty and clever with lots of twists and turns. And it’s about topics I’m very passionate about!
Michelle: Oh, so many amazing books to choose from! Let’s go with – Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey. Heralded as Australia’s To Kill a Mockingbird, it confronts themes of death, race, friendship, love and growing up in a small town. It’s so dynamic! The characters and dialogue are at times chilling and, at other times, hilarious. It’s a truly brilliant read.
NLK: Why are you so passionate about reading?
Ali: Reading has always played a huge role in our lives and friendship. We have grown up sharing and discussing stories and reading books veraciously in tandem. Reading is so empowering. It opens you up to so many different worlds and perspectives and helps nurture empathy, creativity and wisdom. So you can see why we love ‘book worming’ around town, spreading this joy with Australia.
A little bit on how Books on the Rail works…
Found a Books on the Rail book on a train, tram or bus?
Feel free to pick it up and take it home with you!
All of our books celebrate the unique and powerful work of notable and up-and-coming authors.
Read, love and devour them!
Once you’ve finished the book, return it to any train, tram or bus for others to enjoy!