On 26 August 2016, Ali Berg was whisked to the Maldives by her boyfriend for a surprise proposal. When the plane landed, she turned on her phone to find a frantic voice message from her best friend, Michelle Kalus, back in Melbourne.
In the 10 plus hours that Ali was airborne, their four-month-old side project, Books on the Rail, had become a media sensation and Michelle, who had no idea of Ali’s whereabouts, was single-handedly managing the giant wave of publicity.
“The Melbourne Leader had written about us and then the story was picked up by Huffington Post, The Guardian and Nine News,” Michelle recalls. “By the time I was interviewed by 3AW, we had received 500 emails in two hours from people who wanted our Books on the Rail stickers. It was intense!”
It was also a leapfrog from their soft launch in April. In those early months, the two women enjoyed the thrill of secretly leaving books on empty seats in trams, buses and trains for Melbourne commuters. Their mission was simple - get more people to turn pages rather than tap screens on their commute.
The initial book drops consisted of secondhand books and carefully selected copies from the duo's own bookshelves. Each book had a sticker on its cover inviting commuters to take it, read it and return it for fellow commuters to find.
Then the media caught on and by the time Ali returned to Melbourne, Books on the Rail was no longer a lowkey community initiative run by a copywriter and a primary school teacher in their spare time. Commuters who had seen or picked up the books now understood why those books were travelling solo.
In a city that consumes the most books, magazines and newspapers per capita in Australia, it didn’t take long for this homegrown literary project take on a life of its own. This was exactly what Ali was counting on when she brought home the idea from a similar London initiative that she was involved in called Books on the Underground.
“It's such a Melbourne thing,” Ali says. “I approached the only other person I know who is also massive bookaholic to do this with me.” Now Australians, local publishers and authors want to come on board the Books on the Rail movement too.
Each day Books on the Rail receives excited stories from Australians who have sent off their own books on their city's public transport. These bookworms-in-arms are now known as Book Ninjas. And each week another a box of books arrives from a publisher as a contribution to their book drops.
“It’s incredibly humbling, Ali says. "We could never have imagined that so many people would want to share their precious books. It just shows how alive the reading culture is in Melbourne and wider Australia.”
Michelle: I moved to the same school as Ali in Year 2 so we’ve known each other since we were seven! I remember feeling very nervous on my first day at the new school and spotting Ali with her long black plaits. It wasn’t long after we became friends that Harry Potter was published which became a huge part of our growing up. We read the first book in Year 3 and the last together in Year 12. And when we became adults, reading and sharing stories with one another was a big part of our friendship.
Michelle: It’s our all-time favourite. It took me many, many years to recover from that book hangover! It’s a historical fiction, one of our favourite genres, about Russia during World War 2. We were so addicted to the series that it was only fitting to make it the first book we put out.
Michelle: It was very sad but we told ourselves that we're doing a good thing! We also bought a lot of secondhand books for titles we couldn’t part with, like our signed copies of The Bronze Horseman.
Ali: And our Book Ninjas have been amazing. Some put out their own signed copies or limited edition books. And when publishers got wind of this idea, they started sending us big boxes of books too. This is our dream – to get lots of books to read and then share them with others!
Michelle: We were having a flippant conversation with a friend when it came up and it has really resonated with Australians.
Ali: Yea, they really enjoy the traits of being stealthy and surprising other people!
Michelle: Mine was at Toorak Station. I can find public transport quite nerve-racking, just being in a confined space with so many people. So I freaked out the first few times. I was very nervous leaving a book behind because I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself. But I’ve come a long way since then. It has been a very cathartic journey and I’ve come to really enjoy the adventurous side of it.
Ali: At the start we wanted to get as many books as possible on different train lines so we would wait at a train station. When the train came in and the doors opened, we would spy a free spot, run in to leave a book and run out. Now if we’re on the train or tram ourselves, depending on how busy it is, we’ll leave the book on our seat when we get off. My partner takes a lot of books on his way to work and if he’s on a very busy carriage sometimes people put the books on the floor. So he pops it right back on the seat!
Michelle: People often do. My partner hates doing book drops on his way to work on the train because he gets embarrassed when people call after him. I’ve taught him how to do it discreetly now! But when that happens we explain that they’ve found the book so it now belongs to them.
Just this morning a Book Ninja tweeted that someone chased them all the way down the station to return their book. That speaks to the kindness of Melburnians. It doesn’t always happen in other cities. And then there are the conversations that start among strangers when someone finds a book. It’s about bringing together a community of readers and commuters.
Ali: When you see other people reading on the train or tram, you try to see what they’re reading. There’s a sort of connection if you’re both reading books that have a Books on the Rail sticker on them.
Michelle: It’s random but the length of the line makes a difference. We have Book Ninjas who put them on V/Lines. And we also put books at a lot of regional bus stops.
Ali: Last year Metro Trains and Yarra Trams gave us the tick of approval and briefed all their staff to not remove any books when they’re cleaning the trains and trams at the end of the line. So we feel a lot more comfortable knowing these books are staying on board and in circulation.
Michelle: No, we went totally rogue! We were worried that Metro or Yarra may have an issue with it so we decided to get as many books out there and as many people excited before they found out. But they love the idea. We’ve now been into their offices and we’ve run events on trams and trains, like the book club.
Michelle: One of our friend’s partners joked that we should hold a book club on a train. I thought it was an amazing idea and told Ali about it. And then we did it! We’ve had a couple of authors join us since we started. The first book was Redeemable and its author is in the UK but he sent us a really nice text message. Then we had a Melbourne-based author for the second one on the Glen Waverly line.
Graeme Simsion, the author of The Rosie Project, came to our most recent one. We held that one after work hours on a tram and all these commuters got on without knowing what was happening. Graeme engaged with all of them and the whole tram carriage was captivated listening to him. He’d written a short story called Intervention on the No. 3 Tram so we hosted it on Route 3.
Michelle: At the start we used to give away our stickers for free. But when we started receiving hundreds of requests from people wanting to put our stickers on their own books, we worried about sustaining something that’s self-funded. So we now charge a small sum for the stickers and we’ve also introduced a book subscription where we send a mystery book to subscribers every month.
Michelle & Ali: Emerging Writers Festival
Michelle: The Frankston line
Ali: My favourite is now the No. 3 tram
Michelle: A non-packed train
Ali: The Moat because it’s part of The Wheeler Centre so you also see many interesting characters there
Michelle: Graeme Simsion
Ali: Liane Moriarty