Great Read

'Bookcycle' peddles a new take on feminism

On a mural-lined corner of Echo Park, a dozen people gather around a tricycle painted a summery yellow. But even more eye-catching than the color is its main feature: a triple-decker shelf filled with books.

Shaded by a parasol, classics like "The Second Sex" sit a few spines away from "Persepolis," the lively graphic novel about a woman in Iran.

A red sash tied in a bow hangs expectantly across scores of books. That ribbon will soon be snipped by tiny golden scissors, marking the official launch of the Feminist Library on Wheels.

Known as FLOW for short, the roving library is the brainchild of Jenn Witte and Dawn Finley. Their goal is to bring a wide range of feminist media to as diverse an audience in Los Angeles as possible.

"FLOW is a way of redefining what it means to be a card-carrying feminist," Finley says. "It doesn't tell you what feminism is — it gives you a tool to figure that out for yourself."

The library consists entirely of donated books. Some are dog-eared favorites from supporters' shelves. Others are glossy new paperbacks purchased by donors who learned about FLOW while shopping at Skylight Books, the independent Los Feliz bookstore where Witte works.

The result is an eclectic mix of analytical texts and more leisurely reads. Some, like the humorous memoir "Funny in Farsi," are far from academic. Others, like Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake," may not even seem like overtly feminist texts at first glance.

Witte and Finley say they love the crowdsourced definition of feminism on the library's weathered shelves. It offers a nuanced and inclusive portrait of feminism that makes it harder to put the word — and the men and women who embody it — in a narrow (and often negative) box.

"I would like to change a lot of minds about what that word means," Witte says.

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Finley, her long strawberry-blond hair pulled back with a clip, stands by the "bookcycle," blank library cards at the ready. The duo are hoping to sign up their 100th patron (which they do, in short order).

Jeff Khonsary hadn't known about the roving little library. He came to see a concert at the Otherwild Goods & Services boutique, which is hosting the bike's christening. But he lingers, intrigued.

"Do you accept donations?" asks Khonsary, who just happens to be an independent publisher with an interest in alternative libraries and loads of feminist theory texts from college.

"Yes!" Finley says.

Local performance artist Lenae Day steps forward to bless the bookcycle with a tongue-in-cheek warning to ride sidesaddle, as "legs akimbo make a bimbo." A dozen or so books slip off the cycle's shelves into hands and bags.

Witte and Finley hadn't planned on lending books so soon — a few of the 200 or so titles in their collection still have to be outfitted with checkout cards and stamped with the library logo. But visitors keep asking, and they can't bring themselves to say no.

"I think we're just realizing how fast it's all happened," Finley says.

The women are working out the details on the fly. Schedules, routes and stops have yet to be determined, though visitors to Skylight can get the rundown from Witte. She and Finley say they're planning to set up designated drop-off points and hoping to hold public events around Los Angeles that they'll advertise on social media. On Oct. 5, they'll roll out for the take-to-the streets cycling event known as CicLAvia.

"There's no reason not to build a fleet of bikes over time if we get interested parties," Witte says.

Witte, 32, covers five miles from her home in Silver Lake to her job at Skylight on a blue touring bike built out of salvaged parts from the Bicycle Kitchen, a nonprofit educational bike repair center in Los Angeles. (The bike is named bell, for bell hooks, author of the beloved classic "Feminism is for Everybody.")

Witte, whose parents left Los Angeles for Kootenai, Idaho, when she was a girl, remembers taking two of her little sisters to T-ball games by towing them in a trailer behind her bike.

"These books are just in place of my sisters," Witte says. "Sisterhood is powerful.... It seems very fitting."

Finley's bright red road bike has slightly thinner tires with a lighter frame — better suited for the grueling 17-mile commute between her place in Beverly Hills and her boyfriend's in South Pasadena. Finley, 36, is a full-time caregiver for a 96-year-old retired professor of literature whom she worked with for 14 years.

Building the Feminist Library was in part a way to get back in touch with her academic and creative interests, she says.

"The idea of bringing these things together — feminism and books and bicycles — was just impossibly amazing."

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Modern as the idea may seem, bicycles and women's rights share a long history, says Sue Macy, author of the book "Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom."

Before women could vote, the proliferation of bicycles in the late 19th century gave them a newfound independence that seemed to dovetail with the burgeoning women's suffrage movement.

"Let me tell you what I think of bicycling," activist Susan B. Anthony said in 1896. "I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel."

More than a century later, a string of female celebrities has taken to disavowing the term feminism. A 2013 study by University of Toronto researchers found that people associate the terms "typical feminist" and "man hating."

The stereotype persists at a time when violence against women makes frequent headlines, from the shootings at Isla Vista in May to domestic abuse cases involving NFL players.

Even women in power face entrenched sexism, Macy points out. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has detailed repeated instances of sexism in the halls of Congress; one colleague even squeezed her waist and said he liked his girls "chubby."

"There's so many old-school holdouts ... people who can't deal with change," Macy says.

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No such holdouts have barred Witte's and Finley's way — since its conception, the library has continued to pick up speed. Last month, the pair set a $2,500 goal on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo and ended up with more than $3,200. It was more than enough to build the bookcycle they had envisioned and pay for essentials like library cards.

They asked Joe Crennen of Colorado-based Pedal Positive for recommendations on bike builders. Crennen, who built a bookcycle for the Denver Public Library, offered to do it himself. He brought it to Los Angeles in pieces; the three of them assembled it together.

"We really fell in love with it," Finley says.

The shelves, a Goodwill find, seemed to give the library an inviting, homey air, Finley says. Witte attached her grandmother's flowered parasol and potted a cutting of her spider plant to go with the bike.

Finley's tattoo — the profile of a cycling woman with Mercury-like wings in her hair — became the project's logo. Even the tongue-in-cheek acronym FLOW — a reference to a woman's monthly menstruation — seemed to fall perfectly into place.

Riding the bookcycle has taken some getting used to. Witte has learned that she has to lean out on a turn, rather than lean in, to keep the tricycle upright. And if she fails to shift gears long before she reaches a hill, the climb becomes next to impossible.

On the way home from the ribbon-cutting, Witte rides the bookcycle on the sidewalk while navigating a particularly treacherous stretch of Glendale Boulevard. She rings her bell as the tricycle slowly approaches pedestrians.

"Sorry I'm so wide!" she says, referring to her tricycle's bulky load.

"No, you're beautiful!" they call back.

amina.khan@latimes.com

Twitter: @aminawrite

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