At the corner of 15th Street and Irving Street Northwest on a cold November morning, a man stands by a cart laden with granola bars, fruit, bottles of water and books. As people hurry by on their morning commute, he calls out, “Good morning! Free books! Free food!” His name is Christopher Stewart and he tries to do this every month.
Stewart is the librarian at Bell High School/Columbia Heights Education Campus, which serves 1,400 students from sixth grade to 12th grade. He started offering food and books at that corner when he was hired last year. The “brunch” is a continuation of a program Stewart offered when he worked at the Bellevue Public Library in Anacostia. He said the brunch is an opportunity to recognize the epidemic of homelessness in the District and to encourage others to think about how they can help.
“When people feel like they want to tackle homelessness, it becomes such a big issue that they draw back and say, ‘I can’t do anything about it. It’s too big,’” Stewart said. “In the grand scheme, [the brunch] is small. But it could brighten someone’s day.”
More than 20 people stopped at Stewart’s table during his hour on the corner. CHEC students make up most of Stewart’s patrons, but they are not his only focus. “It’s not necessarily targeted specifically for people who are homeless because we want to build community. I want people who are homeless, people who have homes, students, teachers and everyone to just come and eat together and to discuss a great book and see how many similarities they have, as opposed to differences.”
Frederick Carter, who lives nearby, struck up a conversation with Stewart on his way past the table to catch a bus. While he did not take a book, Carter was appreciative of the offer of both books and food. “It’s always good to see a blessing first thing in the morning,” he said.
Stewart described having books on the street, free to pick up, as “liberating.” Anyone walking by on the street is welcome to stop and chat, grab some food, and take a book. Even if they do not have time to read, Stewart encourages public transit users to take a book and leave it on the seat. “It makes all the difference,” he said.
Not long after Carter resumed his commute, several CHEC students hurried by Stewart’s table. The bell had rung and they were facing detentions, according to Stewart. “Did you all have breakfast?” he asked. “You’re already late. You may as well have something to eat.” Some of the students grabbed granola bars and water and hurried to class, others stayed for a few moments to talk about books they had read. A few students listed their interests and asked Stewart which book they should take.
Some people don’t feel comfortable going to public libraries, according to Stewart. A common feeling of being overwhelmed by the contents of a library or insecure about one’s own research ability while in a library has been labeled as “Library Anxiety ” in recent years. However, Stewart is more concerned about people avoiding public libraries due to its associations with government. For example, a 2017 essay published by Time magazine outlined discrimination against undocumented people in libraries and the organization Libraries Everywhere published a detailed report about concern over immigration enforcement in libraries.
It is not all about the books, however. The food is an important aspect, too.
“It’s amazing how things can happen and trickle into something else,” Stewart said. “You know, ‘I didn’t eat this morning, so I’m going to go into work mad, so I’m not going to give great service, so I’m going to get fired from work. So now I can’t pay my bills. So something as small as feeding [people] is huge.”
Right now, the brunch is a localized event. The books were either donated by the American University radio station WAMU or purchased by Stewart at a thrift store. He purchases the food from local grocery stores. In the future, Stewart wants to scale it up. “I want to offer this each month, in each ward,” Stewart said, “An actual table set up with books and food. No formalities, just [the] community coming together for five seconds or five minutes to grab a bite to eat, pick up a book, and/or discuss a great read.” He plans to start offering the brunch in every ward next summer.
Stewart’s eventual goal — or “hopeful dream,” as he puts it — is to open a small café that “empowers readership and has great food.” He wants it to be a pay-what-you-will establishment, where those that pay nothing are treated the same as those that pay a lot. “Community, hospitality, and a safe space is the goal,” Stewart said. “[That’s] where relationships are cultivated and where strangers become family.”
The next brunch will take place at the same place, 15th Street and Irving Street, on Dec. 4 at 8 a.m.