By Sohi Kang/El Inde
Hannah Hildreth was buying flowers with her husband when her phone lit up with the Instagram notification.
tucsontomegnome just posted a photo.
The night before, the group had announced their August Tome Giveaway, where 30 copies of the same book are left at different outdoor locations throughout Tucson for strangers to take home, read and rehide. Once a month, Tucson Tome Gnome would post each book and its location for their followers or for a bystander to find. August’s pick was “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen” by Jose Antonio Vargas, a memoir about an undocumented Filipino immigrant.
As Hildreth left the shop, flowers in hand, she and her husband hurried back to the car to drive to the Cicli Noe bike repair shop, where the first book was placed by a mural on the side of the store. The only thing she found was that someone had already taken the book before she could.
Her phone buzzed again.
tucsontomegnome just posted a photo.
Now the books were at locations around the University of Arizona. Her husband revved up the car. She isn’t really a competitive person, but she couldn’t help but wonder as she looked at the people around her: “Are these people searching too?”
After parking their cars and saying their hellos, Walsh masked and some distance away, Hardy and Flynn headed inside the San Agustin Mercado. Hardy made herself comfortable at a table, while Flynn made a brief pit stop at La Estrella Bakery before heading to the table. As Flynn sat and enjoyed her pumpkin empanada, Jody casually pulled a book out of her tote bag. In a matter of moments, she snapped a few pictures and the two left the location.
She became strategic, examining the backgrounds of the posts on Instagram to map out the locations. After scrambling to two more locations, she finally found the Vargas copy she’d been looking for, wrapped in a glittery white bow. A bookmark peeked out of the book, with “Free Tome!” written on the top.
Hildreth felt giddy, having been especially invested in finding this book by a fellow Filipino. “The fact that I found it, it just made me feel like I was part of the club, you know? I found one of Tome Gnome’s hidden books,” Hildreth said. “It just felt really special that I had actually done the experience.”
On a sunny Sunday morning in September, Mary Ellen Flynn drove her van down to the San Agustin Mercado, near downtown Tucson. There was a large box in her trunk filled with 30 books, wrapped in glittery pink or white bows and branded with stickers of a purple Gnome.
Flynn’s curly strawberry blond hair was tied in a wet bun to keep her head cool. She wore polka dot glasses and a long patterned dress. Jody Hardy, her fellow Tome Gnome, sat in the passenger seat. Hardy had medium-length brown hair and wore a purple tank top, black leggings and comfortable shoes in preparation for the long day.
Their day would take an unfamiliar twist. Normally, Flynn didn’t drive but Emily Walsh did. Today, she rode in a separate car – Walsh was still recovering from a bout of COVID-19.
As the creators of this project, the three women are the heart, body and mind of Tucson Tome Gnome. Walsh typically handles social media for the group, Flynn is the business manager and Hardy the book connoisseur for their monthly picks.
One book done, 29 more to go.
The day followed the same routine – head to a location, make sure there weren’t people around to watch, place the book, take a photo and head out. In between locations, they would take breaks to post and catch up on their social media feed, responding to followers who had found the books or were invested in the search.
At Hotel McCoy, around 2 miles from the San Agustín Mercado, a passerby looked curiously at the three women while Walsh took a photo of the book beside one of the hotel’s artworks outside.
“We’re just taking a picture of the mural,” Walsh said.
But really they see their intervention as a “random act of kindness” so they attempt to be as inconspicuous as possible.
It didn’t always come easy. Just a year ago, they remembered walking all over the University of Arizona campus, tired and hurrying to finish their long hot day. They didn’t even stop, grab coffee or go on a lunch break like they usually do now.
“I only applied sunscreen once!” Flynn recalled.
They learned from the experience. Now, they map out the locations beforehand and even go further out to town. Of course, there have been some bumps along the way, like when it rained during July’s book giveaway of “Malibu Rising.” The theme of the giveaway that day had to do with water, which proved a challenge during the heat of the summer. Well, until a monsoon thundered its way into the city.
Or there’s also the time when they decided to hit pause on Tucson Tome Gnome.
The idea was born out of an early pandemic time dinner conversation. The three friends were lifelong bibliophiles with a combined 25 years of experience in literature-oriented initiatives. They felt there were lots of activities for the kidlit community in Tucson, but less for adults that enjoyed reading.
Also stressed out with the state of the world, the three women wanted to shift their thinking and do something that was just “purely positive, happy and joyful.” It was a way to maintain careful social interaction during those times between the three friends and also connect with other people in the community. The idea felt like the perfect marriage of their love of reading and spreading positivity during difficult times. Tucson Tome Gnome was their way of donating something to the community rather than just a cash donation.
“Knowing that somewhere out there somebody was overjoyed to find a book made me feel like I had connected to that person,” Hardy said. “They’re going to read that book, and I hope they’re going to love it. We’re going to both share that love. Then, later on, even though I’ll never probably meet this person, I still feel like I’m connected.”
So they started Tucson Tome Gnome, with a mission of creating “bookish joy for grown-ups,” though teens and young adults are kept in mind as well. They set out to choose books from a variety of diverse voices to capture a variety of readers, whether that be through various racial, ethnic and gender identities along with different fiction and nonfiction book genres.
The members split the cost of the project entirely through their own funds. It came to about $350 for 30 books, but that wasn’t including the cost of the stickers, bookmarks, gas and other incidental expenses. Three months later in December, their project wasn’t exactly a success. With around 350 followers on Instagram, dismal feedback and a lack of financial resources, the three decided to take some time to think about the sustainability of the project.
After what became a two-month pause on their project, local news organization ThisIsTucson reached out to them to write a story about Tucson Tome Gnome. For the three women, they saw this as a sign to keep going, despite feeling slightly awkward, weird and uncomfortable about this new experience.
“‘Oh, God. People know.’ ThisIsTucson wants to take pictures of us,” Walsh said. “We were like, no one takes our photo. That’s not a thing that happens.” They also didn’t expect the story to end up on the front news page, but the three continued on with their regular lives after that, with Hardy as a store manager at Mostly Books.
Then, people began coming into the bookstore, asking her if she was “the gnome.” After confirming she was, they would hand her cash to support the project, ranging from $20-100. Some would even offer to write checks for around $200 or more. Others who had read the article would reach out on social media, asking how they could support the Tome Gnomes.
With this newfound stream of support, the Tome Gnomes decided to launch a GoFundMe campaign in February. Their goal was $5,000, which would fund the rest of the project of the year. By week two, it was at $1,812. Then they received a donation in the amount of $3,188 – just meeting their goal amount – by a then-anonymous donor.
Now, a year into the project, the support from the community is what keeps them going. The monthly giveaways allow them to see the “good, lovely people of Tucson,” and to show the world is not so terrible. Frequently, they receive messages from people who have found that book and the surprise and joy they received from seeking one of the books. There are those who have gone on a date during one of their giveaways, take their children along on the hunt or fellow book lovers meeting each other from their giveaways.
During their September giveaway, Flynn and Hardy were taking a small break in their cars after placing their 10th book on a chair outside the Marroney Theatre at the University of Arizona. Walsh had just posted the photo of the book a few minutes earlier.
Then, through their windshield, they saw something odd: A woman and man sprinting out of a hastily parked black truck. They hadn’t even bothered to roll up their windows. A few moments later, the two came back, with the woman victoriously holding up the book they had hidden just a few moments earlier. She jumped up and down in excitement.
Later, Hardy and Flynn saw the two of them again, their cars stopped side to side at a red light. The two Tome Gnomes peeked at the pair inside and saw the woman still holding the book and smiling. In the car, Hardy and Flynn called Walsh to tell her what they saw.
“That makes it all worth it, right?” they said.
For followers of Tucson Tome Gnome, finding the book is just as worthy.
Stevie Gabaldon, 30, felt like a hot mess during the time of the July giveaway. She had no makeup on and wore a simple shirt and shorts for a run with her husband. She saw the Tome Gnomes had posted a few books around town, but gave up after going to three different locations that turned up empty.
“I’m not going to find one, it’s not happening,” she told herself.
So Gabaldon ran errands as usual, watched television back at home and was scrolling through Instagram when she saw another TTG post.
She recognized the location as Palo Verde Park, not far from where she lived. Gabaldon and her husband started the drive again, except this time, a book waited for her at a set of green double doors.
She grabbed the book in a happy and excited frenzy, a smile on her face as she presented the book to her husband. “I got it!” she said.
Growing up, Gabaldon’s dad didn’t like buying books because she would finish them in a few days and of course, need another book to dive into. As a book lover, she appreciates that Tucson Tome Gnome spreads new books to the community to those that may not be able to afford it.
Just a few weeks before Tucson Tome Gnome’s one-year anniversary in September, there was no doubt about keeping up with the project. But how to make it sustainable? The monthly book giveaways were a labor of love, with no profit pocketed between the three women. With the costly price of books, materials and other costs such as applying for the nonprofit status of the project, they were faced with another question: “Does the community appreciate it enough to help us keep going?”
Funds were slowly running out. A new GoFundMe was announced just a few days before the “Thirteenth Tome Giveaway,” which also marked a year of their project. The goal amount was a bit higher than last year – $7,500 – to cover the costs of their 2023 books and activities. The Tome Gnomes’ project was growing, and they wanted to be prepared. They were even in the process of applying for nonprofit status.
On the day of the 13th giveaway, Flynn and Hardy sat in the van after a long, nearly 9 hour day of book drops, with Walsh on the phone. They called the end usually very anticlimactic. Unbeknownst to the three women, someone had donated $7,500 to the GoFundMe while they were busy with the day’s work. His name was TJ Klune, the author of the 1st book they featured – The House in the Cerulean Sea, featuring a gnome character – and also the author of the 13th book the three women gave away that September.
Klune was an author with Tucson ties, living in the city for 15 years. When he had learned the gnomes had given away his books for the first giveaway and were organizing a GoFundMe, he was quick to support it: Klune was the anonymous donor from the first crowdfunding campaign they had organized. Though he asked for the donation to be anonymous on the public campaign, a spokesperson from the organization reached out to them regarding his identity and let them know Klune wanted to meet them at a book festival being hosted in Tucson during March.
From then on, Klune had remained supportive of the project. The gnomes said that in conversations with him, he had mentioned that this project would have been something that he would have liked to see when he was younger and that he had a strong belief in making books accessible in fun ways. So keeping to their roots, the gnomes decided to celebrate their year anniversary – their 13th giveaway – with another one of his books. They reached out to him, and he agreed to sign the 30 books and promoted their giveaway on Instagram.
When they had found out he had donated again, now $7,500 on top of the donations that they had already received, their reactions varied from a state of disbelief, gratitude, shock and excitement.
“Are we in a book? What is this? Is this a Hallmark movie? What are we living right now?” Walsh said.
When they started Tucson Tome Gnome, little did they know it would command a life of its own, growing into something much more than they had ever imagined. Now, it seems odd to call it a project. Tucson Tome Gnome could more aptly be seen as a community, growing and evolving to how much and what its members are willing to cultivate it into. The devotion to bookish joy and random acts of kindness always seems to come back around, leaving room for more to spread in the future, all through the desert town of Tucson and perhaps beyond.