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Bookmobiles' final chapter?

A few libraries, drivers refuse to give up on relic of days gone by

Inside the Beverly Library 'Bookmobile' Linda Caravaggio (right) chats with a customer.
Inside the Beverly Library "Bookmobile" Linda Caravaggio (right) chats with a customer. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

BEVERLY - It used to be that crowds awaited Linda Caravaggio and her big shiny bus. Rumbling along a leafy circuit through the town, stopping at a preschool here, a retirement home there, she would be greeted like a returning hero or Santa Claus. Everyone, it seemed, was happy to see her.

But that was 20 years ago. The bus is now a ragged shadow of itself, with malfunctioning heaters, a rheumatic suspension, and an engine that huffs gray smoke whenever it is coaxed to speeds over 40 miles per hour. And when Caravaggio recently eased the shuddering and wheezing bus into one of her old stops, near a residential street overlooking a stretch of blue water, something all but inevitable happened.

No one came.

Caravaggio is a relic of an era whose glory days are in the past. She is a bookmobile driver.

It may come as no surprise, in an age defined by mouse-clicks, that bookmobiles are disappearing. Once mainstays in Massachusetts and across the country, part of an exuberant movement to evangelize the joys of reading, bookmobiles are increasingly seen as irrelevant, and have been retired one by one.

Beverly's red-and-white jalopy is one of just four that still operate in the state. The dilapidated bus is in such disrepair that Caravaggio thinks it will not last the year, and town leaders have said they will no longer fund it.

But Caravaggio and a handful of others who work with her at the Beverly Public Library are not giving up that easily.

They are holding potluck dinners and pancake breakfasts, trying to raise $150,000 to purchase a new one.

"It's just so valued in Beverly," library director Patricia Cirone said of the bookmobile and its driver. "People [are] saying, 'Please, we would be lost without her.' "

Bookmobiles became popular in the 1950s, when they carried books to city neighborhoods and remote villages, said Thomas Moroney of Worcester, who owns one of the four companies that make bookmobiles in the United States. Back then, Moroney Monolite Bookmobiles built a new bookmobile every eight weeks.

"Way back in the glory days they were ordering four at a time," recalled Moroney, whose company built the Beverly bookmobile 20 years ago.

But by the 1980s, the popularity of bookmobiles began to fade. Specialists who study bookmobiles differ in their explanations. Some blame skyrocketing gas prices. Others say bookmobiles became irrelevant in communities where residents can get easy access to other resources, such as the Internet.

"I sold bookmobiles for 15 years, and I would come across people who said 'bookmobiles are dinosaurs' and 'bookmobiles are fading,' " said Tina Wilson, a branch manager at Cleveland Public Library.

The Boston Public Library stopped operating its bookmobile in 1980. Fairhaven took its bookmobile off the road in 1986. The Shrewsbury bookmobile stopped running in 2000. The one in Gloucester discontinued its service in 2004.

Now, Moroney mostly builds dump trucks and ambulances. "The bookmobile is no longer our main product," he said.

Moroney Monolite Bookmobiles builds one or two bookmobiles a year, and Moroney cannot recall the last time he built one for a Massachusetts library.

In addition to Beverly, libraries in Natick, New Bedford, and Westford operate bookmobiles in Massachusetts, according to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

Almost 900 bookmobiles operate in the United States, estimated Jan Meadows, a Colorado Springs librarian who writes a column, "21st Century Bookmobiles," for the American Library Association.

"There are communities where bookmobiles are the primary place to get information, in rural areas where getting to a library is difficult or a low-income area where computers are not in every home, where people cannot afford to buy books," said Satia Orange, director of the American Library Association's office for literacy and outreach services.

Libraries in big cities such as Chicago and Cleveland have bookmobiles.

Caravaggio's bookmobile delivers books to kindergartens, institutions for the elderly and for people with special needs, and ordinary residents who are too old or too ill to drive to the library on their own.

On a recent morning, the bookmobile clattered to a stop in front of the Beverly School for the Deaf. Later, Caravaggio delivered two large canvas bags full of books to a day-care center. Each time the bookmobile took a turn, some books fell off the shelves lining the walls of the bus and fell on the carpeted floor with a loud thump.

"Now we need it more than we did before," said Helen Orlando, 84, a Beverly resident who has been a patron since Beverly got its first bookmobile in 1959 and who likes romance novels by Nora Roberts. Sunset Drive, where Orlando lives, is one of the routine stops on Caravaggio's list.

So far in its drive to raise funds for a new bookmobile, the Beverly library has raised $900. The library has also applied for a $5,000 grant.

At the empty intersection overlooking the water last week, Caravaggio recalled how patrons had slowly disappeared. Two have died. A couple who homeschooled their children moved to Canada.

But there had been one regular who came without fail. Caravaggio leaned on the horn in case the regular had not heard the rattle of the approaching bus. Nothing. She pulled out her cellphone and dialed the patron's number, but got no answer. Caravaggio got out of the bookmobile and walked to the patron's house, but still found no evidence of the patron.

"I hope she's OK," Caravaggio sighed, returning to the bus and turning the ignition key. The bookmobile reluctantly shook to life and resumed its slow crawl along the streets of Beverly.

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