South Palm Beach: Roadworthy, readworthy: 50 years of bookmobile

Mike Cavanaugh enters the bookmobile in South Palm Beach, where it stops on Fridays. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

Related Story: First mobile library was horse-drawn

By Ron Hayes

On April 15, 1969, the Palm Beach County Commission met to buy a bookmobile.
If the commission approved the contract, this bookmobile would be built by the Gerstenslager Co. of Wooster, Ohio, would arrive within 90 days and would cost the taxpayers $30,500.90.
Four of the five commissioners were on board. Commissioner Robert F. Culpepper of Jupiter wasn’t.
“I’m not voting against the bookmobile,” he announced. “I’m voting against the expensive bookmobile.”
“There’s no such thing as an inexpensive bookmobile,” Commissioner E.W. Weaver told him after the vote.
“Well,” Culpepper said, “I just hope it will be used.”
The Palm Beach County Library System’s first bookmobile hit the road 50 years ago this month, in October 1969. Commissioner Culpepper could visit the South Palm Beach Town Hall any Friday morning to see how much it’s being used today.
The bookmobile stops at 40 locations throughout Palm Beach County, and little South Palm Beach is one of only two stops that’s so busy it visits every week instead of twice a month. The other is Palm Beach Shores.
From October 2018 to July 2019, bookmobile visitors checked out 50,000 items at those 40 stops. But the South Palm Beach stop alone accounted for just over 5,000 items checked out, or 10 percent of the bookmobile’s total circulation during that 10-month period.
“It’s still our busiest stop,” says Ron Glass, the county’s outreach librarian.
South Palm Beach and the bookmobile are such good friends that on Feb. 8 Town Clerk Yude Alvarez organized a small celebration at Town Hall to mark the 50th anniversary.
Tables were set up in the fire bay, and the bookmobile’s staff and local book lovers enjoyed iced tea and juices, cookies, cupcakes, muffins and scones as music played.
Drop by in January and the narrow space between the shelves can get so packed with book lovers browsing and condo neighbors chatting, you might have a wait to get in.
Drop by on a Friday morning in August, and the crowd is smaller, but no less enthusiastic.
“Without this mobile library, we wouldn’t be here,” says Daniel Colangelo, waiting to check out All The Way, Joe Namath’s latest football memoir. “We appreciate it so much. And the staff! They’re all great.”

ABOVE: Palm Beach resident Gladys Jacobson looks through the movie selection as Michael Barto, the bookmobile driver of 26 years, helps South Palm Beach’s Mike Cavanaugh check out books. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
BELOW: The original 1969 Palm Beach County bookmobile.

The bookmobile arrives at the Town Hall each week bearing about 2,000 items — 1,500 books and another 500 DVDs and music or talking-book CDs. The bookmobile even carries a birding kit available for checkout. That’s a backpack, adult binoculars, children’s binoculars, lens cleaner and a laminated pamphlet for identifying species.
But to regular users, the bookmobile’s most valuable asset is the staff.
Library Associate Jennifer Busch has been with the library for 19 years. Michael Barto has driven the bookmobile for 26. Twelve years ago, he learned American Sign Language to serve deaf patrons. And mechanic/multilinguist Francisco Navarro is along in case the great book beast breaks down and to assist Spanish speakers.
Kristen Farley of South Palm Beach brings her three kids.
“I always brag that I’ve never chosen a book for myself,” she says. “They know what I like, and they choose for the kids, too.”
It’s common praise.
“If they see something they think I’d like, they set it aside for me,” says Gladys Jacobson of Palm Beach. “I’m absolutely amazed at how they can select books for readers.”

Small towns were concern
The bookmobile’s arrival at those 40 stops throughout the county comes at the end of a long road that began with a book lover who saw a problem she wanted fixed.
Her name was Ingrid A. Eckler, a member of the West Palm Beach League of Women Voters, and she was concerned about all those residents who weren’t being reached by the independent municipal libraries in the county’s larger cities. In 1964, Eckler and her fellow Women Voters started agitating the County Commission to create a countywide library service, and in April 1967, the state Legislature created a special taxing district and the county library system was born.
The first branch library opened in Tequesta in September 1969.
In October 1969, that $30,500.90 bookmobile made its first stops at Canal Point and South Bay on Lake Okeechobee, Lake Worth Road by Florida’s Turnpike and the city of Atlantis.
The South Palm Beach stop arrived in 1982. In 2013, the bookmobile added a stop in Ocean Ridge, but it didn’t attract many borrowers.
“It lasted one year,” Ron Glass says, “then we went right down the street to Briny Breezes, and it does real well, especially in season.”
But it’s no match for South Palm Beach.
“The bookmobile is No. 1!”
Inalee Foldes is hugging a new biography of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. She’s already read the lives of justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O’Connor. “Mike knows what I like,” she explains, referring to Barto. “This is the first place you come after you’ve been away.”
Today’s bookmobile is not the same one the County Commission bought in April 1969. That one was retired in 1977.
This current model is the sixth bookmobile to serve the county in the five decades since, and it didn’t cost $30,500.90.
Its price tag: $245,000.
But it didn’t cost taxpayers anything.
Look closely at the rear of the bookmobile on the driver’s side and you’ll find, beneath the brightly painted books and lettering, a small rendering of a black fireman’s helmet bearing the message, “FDNY 343.”
“An anonymous donor paid for this bookmobile,” Jennifer Busch says. “We don’t know who it was, but he or she requested only that it feature a fireman’s helmet somewhere on the outside and the number 343, the number of firefighters who died in New York on 9/11.”
Ingrid A. Eckler, first president of the Friends of the Library and a member of its advisory board for 21 years, died in 1998 at age 85.
Culpepper, the only county commissioner to vote against spending $30,500.90 for that first bookmobile, is alive and well at 87, still living in Jupiter, and still happy to chat.
“That $30,000 was a lot of money back then,” he says. “As I said, I didn’t vote against the bookmobile. I voted against the price. But coming from Jupiter, we had no library branch then and the only service we had was the bookmobile, so I was always a strong supporter.”
Then he got on his computer and found an inflation calculator.
“You know,” he said. “That $30,000 in 1969 would be the equivalent of $210,000 today. So if the county were going to pay $245,000 for the new one, that’s $35,000 more.”
The former county commissioner from Jupiter thought a moment and laughed.
“I might vote against it again.”

About the bookmobile
The Palm Beach County Bookmobile stops at the South Palm Beach Town Hall every Friday from 10:30 to noon.
In Briny Breezes, it stops on alternate Fridays from 1:30-2:30 p.m. The upcoming dates are Oct. 11 and 25.
You can request up to four items a week by calling 649-5476. If the staff is unavailable, leave a message and your call will be returned.
Library cards are also available on the bookmobile.
For more information, visit

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