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Book lovers often say that the experience of reading is like having a magic carpet to new worlds, ideas and experiences. Just turn that magic carpet into a retrofitted shuttle bus that's laden with books for everyone from babies to teens, and you've got a good description of the Free Book Buggie (TFBB).

This local nonprofit travels to community events, school celebrations and neighborhood gatherings with a simple plan: Open up the doors, invite kids to come inside and hope that they leave with as many books as they want, all free of charge.

In her April-through-October travels across the metro area, founder Debbie Beck often talks with children who don't have any books in their homes. Beck, who cheerfully totes tubs of books, fills the Buggie's shelves and even drives the vehicle herself, said that her dream is to go home empty-handed.

"We haven't run out of books at an event yet — we take between 1,000 and 1,500 each time — but nothing would be better than driving off and knowing we've given away everything," she said.

Beck was always a passionate reader. "My grandmother made us read at least an hour every day, and I grew up with my nose in a book," she said.

When asked to run I Love to Read month at her children's elementary school, she ended up staying in the role for 11 years, long after her kids had moved on. Then, on a trip to Brazil with her daughter, she saw a man selling books from a VW Microbus. She felt inspiration strike.

"We pulled out a pad of paper, sat right down there in the park and started making plans together. I knew there were children in my own community who were without books, and I also knew that books were being thrown away or not used in other places. I wanted to be able to take books directly to communities where children live and learn, so that's how the idea of a retrofitted bus began to take shape."

In June 2018, the Free Book Buggie hit the road for the first time, and Beck began to create reality from her inspiration.

She found a used shuttle bus on Craigslist, sending her board of directors an urgent text to get approval for the $12,500 purchase price. A friend's husband had just retired, so she got his help in retrofitting the interior with shelving and a colorful foam floor that looks like jigsaw puzzle pieces.

Now, as many as eight children and a few adults can comfortably browse inside. "I'm especially proud that our Buggie has a lift on it, so children who use wheelchairs can participate, too," Beck said.

She handles just about every aspect of her role with aplomb.

"One time when I was at an event, the organizers asked me to parallel park the Buggie between a fire truck and a police truck. I managed to do that, so I do sort of feel I can take any challenge that comes my way."

It remains an all-volunteer organization, with Beck receiving no salary. Funding comes from grants, corporate contributions and individual donations.

"Unique Thrift Store in Burnsville has been making regular book donations since 2018, and Jason Shumate and Norma Birr, who work there, are great about providing us with as many as 1,000 good-condition children's books a week," she said.

TFBB operates out of donated classroom space at Burnsville High School.

"We had been working out of an outdoor storage unit in Burnsville for about two years, and one Saturday, Chris Bellmont [assistant superintendent at the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District] stopped by with his son to make a book donation," Beck said. "He told me, 'You need to be inside,' and he helped us make it happen. We've had massive support from everyone in the district."

Volunteers now meet at the high school on Saturdays to sort and shelve book donations.

For Beck, the only thing that might be more fun than reading a good book is sharing that experience with others. She aims to imbue this generosity to the kids who pass through the Buggie's doors.

"I ask them to think about what they'd like to do with their book after they read it," she said. "They can start their own home library, share the book with a friend or put it in a Little Free Library."

Debbie Beck is the founder, executive director, book schlepper and bus driver of the Free Book Buggie.
Debbie Beck is the founder, executive director, book schlepper and bus driver of the Free Book Buggie.


Removing barriers

Earlier this year, TFBB visited Brooklyn Center Elementary School and provided books to each of its 700 students. Laura Ringen, a social emotional educator at the school, was an immediate fan.

"The concept is amazing because it provides books to kids in our local communities by removing the barriers of cost and transportation," she said.

"Debbie took the time to talk to every class about TFBB and how it started. Students learned about nonprofits and the importance of giving back to the community, and they each walked away with a book. Many were interested in how they could contribute to the organization, too. She's an incredible leader, and she has motivated and empowered me through the work she does."

Beck has been volunteering since she was 12, and now, at 64, she's able to look back on her life and see a thread of service, connection and helping kids.

"I connect with lots of people, and I'm not afraid to ask for anything," she said. "I figure if the answer is no, I just have to find a way to get to yes."

There are satellite programs in the Duluth area and Rochester. While she would love to see her brainchild expand into a national organization someday, Beck is staying local, at least for a while.

"I've always believed in taking care of your own back ard first," she said.

One thing she's sure of is that this is a concept with staying power. "When I get a hug from a child who tells me, 'This is my first book,' then I know I'm doing the right thing."

Julie Kendrick is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. Follow her @KendrickWorks.

Check it out

The Free Book Buggie will be appearing at neighborhood events and metrowide gatherings through October. The 2024 schedule can be found at