Bogota: Emptying the bins of Colombia’s capital, Jose Alberto Gutierrez one day found a copy of the classic novel Anna Karenina, and kept it.
That was 20 years ago — and the garbage man continued to collect Bogota’s discarded books, amassing 25,000 in a free library, swelled by donations.
“I realised that people were throwing books away in the rubbish. I started to rescue them,” Gutierrez, a stocky, grey-haired man of 54, told journalists.
He never got past primary school as a student, but is now dubbed “The Lord of the Books,” in demand from schools across the country.
That first copy of Tolstoy was soon joined by The Little Prince, Sophie’s World, The Iliad and various novels by Colombian master Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Gutierrez’s neighbours started coming around to borrow books to help their children with schoolwork.
“There was a lack of them in our neighbourhood, so we started to help.”
Now a whole floor of his house, on a hill in the working class Nueva Gloria district of the capital, is taken up by stacks of books.
Along with wife Luz Mery Gutierrez and their three children, Gutierrez opened it as a free library in 2000.
Volunteers joined in, word spread, and the garbage man found himself invited to international book fairs in Santiago, Monterrey as well as in the capital.
Spreading the words
Where once he supplied the library by rescuing books from the street, now most his stock comes from donations. Aside from donations, Gutierrez covers any further expenses from his own pocket.
“We have a blessed curse upon us,” he said. “The more books we give away, the more come to us.”
The collection got so big that they had to halt the children’s reading sessions they held in the house, for lack of space.
Instead they started travelling around the country to deliver free books to hundreds of poor and remote districts.
Books for peacetime
Gutierrez says his mother gave him a love of literature by reading cartoons to him in the country shack where he grew up.
“It was she who enlightened me,” he says.
Having not finished school as a boy, he is now, well into middle age, studying for his school leaver’s exam.
Among the people across the vast jungle nation who have contacted him to ask for books was a fighter in the FARC leftist rebel group.
Its 7,000 members are gathered in demobilisation zones to disarm under a peace accord signed last year with the government.
The FARC member asked Gutierrez to send books for the fighters. They will have to learn and train for new jobs once they lay down their weapons and make the transition to civil life.
“Books transformed me, so I think books are a symbol of hope for those places,” Gutierrez said. “They are a symbol of peace.”