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Library: Ex-cop follows a different beat with bookmobile

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

John Collins still has trouble believing he’s a librarian.

His career as a police officer in Elizabeth, N.J., ended when he was injured in the line of duty and retired. Collins and his wife, Silvana, decided to leave New Jersey and settle in Pawleys Island with their three children. Being bilingual, she was hired for the children’s library at the main branch in Georgetown and has expanded services to the Hispanic community. When the library advertised for a bookmobile librarian, Collins thought it sounded “so cool” and applied.

“All these years chasing people over fences,” he thought, “it would be nice to do something positive on a daily basis.”

A people person, Collins quadrupled the bookmobile’s circulation in short order and has been so successful that the county library director, Dwight McInvaill, has promoted him to adult services librarian at the new Waccamaw branch. He’ll run the bookmobile until the new library opens. His replacement will have some big shoes to fill.

“They saw my tenacity and how I deal with people,” said Collins, 42, who plans to get a master’s degree in library science online.

Collins knows what most of his regular bookmobile customers like and has books for them onboard when he makes his rounds. “I developed a love of reading later in life,” he said. “In high school, I took AP courses and read what I had to. Later in life, I was inspired with reading and it became a side passion. There was never a thought I would make a second career out of it.”

Connie Harris, a regular bookmobile client at St. Elizabeth Place, said Collins is “very nice” and “comical.” She used to walk to the branch on Library Lane, but joined her neighbors at the bookmobile stop. “The first couple of times, he sizes you up,” Harris said, “and then he makes sure those books are there. This is so easy; some ladies have a hard time getting out.”

Now that the branch has closed, the bookmobile is the only connection with the library for people without ready transportation. Collins spends four hours on Monday afternoons in the parking lot at the old branch to make sure patrons can get books. He was pleased that regular library visitors said they were impressed with the bookmobile’s collection. “Everything in there is my responsibility,” he said. “It’s nice to hear from steady patrons who are very savvy with reading who come in and say, ‘Wow, I like your collection.’ Understand I serve as young as 2 years old to assisted living. It’s not only the age group, I serve from the Lakes at Litchfield to North Santee, completely different communities. It’s a challenge.”

Collins said he gets a pulse for what his clients like. He has a list on a legal pad for one particular reader beginning with John Gresham’s “The Gray Mountain.” Children are easier to please. “I could have an entire row of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and satisfy 80 percent of your fourth-graders,” he said. “I try to draw them away from that so they won’t be pigeonholed.”

He called the stop at the Georgetown Marine Institute his most challenging and rewarding. The facility provides a second chance for boys who got into trouble with the law. “A judge saw a spark in them,” Collins said. Still, they are damaged and suspicious of authority. “The education system failed them,” Collins said, “and there was no push for reading at home.”

Each of the 38 boys is required to check out a book every other week and write a report on it. “I’m not just a service,” Collins said, “I’m part of the curriculum.” He took an interest in one boy who always grabbed the first book off a shelf and checked it out. Collins eventually asked him what he liked to read. “I don’t like to read,” the boy answered. “No, no,” Collins said, “you just haven’t found what you like yet. Nobody has put a book in your hand that grabbed you. You like to read. You just don’t know it yet.”

Collins knew his 13-year-old daughter liked author Percy Jackson, so he took the first book of the first series and put it in the boy’s hand. When he saw him two weeks later the boy was excited to learn there was more from the author. “He read every book of every series while he was there,” Collins said, “and some of these books are 300 pages.” When the boy graduated from the Marine Institute, he went home and got his own library card. “He graduated from the program,” Collins said, “as a lover of reading.”

Collins said the bookmobile will fill a larger role in Pawleys Island now that the library is moving to Litchfield. He plays jazz in the background for its calming effects and insisted on getting a vacuum to keep the floor clean. The vehicle, purchased last year, has a refrigerator, microwave and a generator. It’s fully wi-fi, even in rural spots where service is spotty. “The neighborhood is losing its library,” Collins said. “You fill that need.”

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