Rural Missouri Magazine

Books on wheels
The Reading Express brings books to readers
in Ozark Regional Library’s four-county area

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by Jim McCarty

Students from Dana Racer’s third-grade class at Belleview Elementary School search for treasures on the shelves inside "The Reading Express."

Outside the Belleview Elementary School, a strange vehicle pulls to a stop with a cloud of dust. Walt Douglas and Judy Schumacher barely have time to open the doors before a line of students from Dana Racer’s third-grade class emerge from the school. Despite her best efforts, the teacher struggles to contain the excitement as they board the Ozark Regional Library’s bookmobile.

Just inside the door, Walt’s ready to check in returned books while Judy waits at a tiny desk in the back to sign out new ones selected from shelves reaching high above the students’ heads. One of the third-graders finds a book on Easter from the seasonal rack. Another plops down on a bench in front of Walt and scans a recent issue of Sports Illustrated.

Dubbed “The Reading Express” in a contest, this bookmobile is the latest incarnation of an institution that dates back more than 60 years for the Ironton-based library. Can’t make it to the library? No worries. This one comes to you.

“We serve people from preschool to 90-plus years,” says Walt, the bookmobile’s driver. “If they can get on here, we serve them. If they can’t get on here, we still serve them.”

In its 30 years, “The Reading Express” has logged more than 154,000 miles while serving four counties on some of the state’s crookedest roads.

Walt, Judy and The Reading Express log thousands of miles each year traveling to patrons in the library’s four-county territory: Crawford, Iron, Madison and Ste. Genevieve. The bookmobile stops at 27 schools throughout the school year. It makes 13 stops at rural communities as small as Zell and Des Arc. It stops at nursing homes, preschools and day cares, anywhere there is a need for library services and no library to provide them.

“Wherever there’s enough interest, we try to work them in on the schedule if it’s feasible,” Walt says. “We cover such a distance, we’ve got to make every stop count. When we go to Cuba or Bourbon, for example, that’s 2-1/2 hours for the bookmobile.”

The Reading Express began life as a 1978 International truck chassis that replaced an aging 1960 Ford. To it was added a custom 1980 bookmobile body made by a now-defunct German manufacturer, The Gerstenslager Co.

“This was considered a Cadillac,” says John Mertens, director of the Ozark Regional Library. “We are real proud of her. We paid $51,000 for this machine in 1980. A new one would cost somewhere around $140,000.”

John says the first bookmobile came to the Ironton area in 1946 courtesy of the Missouri State Library. “The state library did a demonstration project to encourage people in Iron County to fund the support of a library with taxes,” he says. “In 1947, the tax passed. I don’t know if we’ve ever been without a bookmobile.”

Iron County’s bookmobile service began in 1946 when the Missouri State Library sent bookmobiles like this one to spur interest in taxpayer-funded libraries. Some counties had bookmobiles even earlier. Photo courtesy of Missouri State Archives.

Bookmobiles got their start in this country when a Maryland library provided a horse-drawn book wagon to take books directly to homes in remote parts of its territory.

That mission has changed little in the years bookmobiles have traveled rural roads in Missouri, save for a nod to current patrons’ desires for videos and magazines. Ozark Regional’s bookmobile serves some schools that don’t have libraries and meets the needs of senior citizens who lack transportation to libraries in town.

“We have a lot of residents who are not able to get there,” says Sabrina Haverstick, activity director for the Belleview Valley Nursing Home. “Walt comes by and drops us off 15 books a month. The home’s residents read them, and he comes back the next month and trades us out. The residents really enjoy it.”

For rural schools, the 8,000 tomes that circulate on the bookmobile add greater variety. The traveling library also generates tremendous excitement for students and teachers alike.

“It’s fun to go research book titles in a different atmosphere,” says Kelly Klump, principal of St. Agnes Catholic School in Bloomsdale, one of the bookmobile stops. “They are excited to come. I can remember being excited as well when the bookmobile would come. They’ve been coming to Bloomsdale since I was a child.”

Walt Douglas and Judy Schumacher bring a lot of joy to those who use the bookmobile’s services, and receive the same in return.

She says the bookmobile dovetails nicely with the school’s Million Word Club, a program that rewards students for prolific reading. The club was intended for students in fifth through eighth grades, but now includes some from third and fourth grades, too.

“Sometimes, this is the only place they get their books,” Kelly says. “The more we can get into their hands, the better.”

As the bookmobile makes its rounds, Walt and Judy spread a lot of joy and receive the same in return. “Kids really like it,” Walt says. “We can very seldom pull up and turn the engine off before they are standing at the door. I think you can tell we have a lot of fun here, we really do. We enjoy the kids, all the people.”

And then there’s the adults who tell stories of when they were kids experiencing the bookmobile. “They remember that,” says Judy. “Some adults remember getting on this one when they were kids. When they see us sitting, they will come on. They come in and ask all about it.”

One person who remembers growing up with the bookmobile is Walt, who lived in south St. Louis. “I thought that was the neatest thing,” he says of his bookmobile visits. “It had an air conditioner in the back. In those days, hardly anyone had an air conditioner. When I got inside, it was nice and cool.”

The two say riding on the bookmobile can be interesting. Top speed from its 392 V-8 engine is just 50 mph. “That’s my interstate speed,” Walt says. “I do get down to 15 mph with it. It’s pretty heavy.”

“Walt pulls over quite a bit,” Judy says. “When it turns curves, I’m trying to hold it up. I know it’s not going to go over, but that’s just what you do.”

Belleview Elementary School students (from left) Josie Morris, Emily Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Fitzgerald share the books they found during their visit to the bookmobile, which stops at 27 schools.

Surprisingly, the books hardly ever fall off the slanted shelves. Except for one . . .

“We do get some spooky books sometimes,” Walt says. “One decided to start jumping off. It was a science fiction book. It jumped out all by itself. I told Judy we better get this one off of here.”

Then there’s the story of the student who loved books about Clifford, the Big Red Dog, so much he wouldn’t leave until he found one. “He looked, Judy looked, I looked, the teachers looked,” Walt recalls. “Even the other kids were trying to help him. We couldn’t find anything. I finally said, ‘Lord, help us find this book.’ And I’m not kidding you, there it was. On the top shelf where everyone had looked already. He took that book and just hugged it.”

According to the Missouri State Library, 13 Missouri libraries currently operate bookmobiles. They tend to be in the more urban counties, though rural libraries such as the ones in Cass, St. Clair, Stone and Washington counties also have them. Few travel as far down steep, winding rural roads as The Reading Express, which has logged 154,000 miles in its 30 years. Its travels take it from Ste. Genevieve in the east to as far as Cuba in the west.

On the ceiling of the bookmobile, Walt keeps a poster that shows a spaceship delivering books. “We tell the kids this is the one we’ve got on order — just as soon as I get through flight school,” he says.

For information about the Ozark Regional Library’s bookmobile, call 573-546-2615 or log on to

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