Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library has three bookmobiles, but for more than a week all of them have been out of service and in the municipal garage for repairs.
The absence of the bookmobiles, a trio of clunkers with 53 years of service among them, has left a large number of elderly people in the City That Reads without access to books. Library officials did not know last night when any of the vehicles would be back on the road.
There has been no bookmobile service in Baltimore since last Thursday.
"The bookmobile means a lot to our residents, and they're very upset," said Tina Wise, manager of the Marlboro Apartments on Eutaw Place.
"I had to put up a notice saying that the bus was broken, it's a problem we can't do anything about."
"I haven't had anything to read in over a week now," said Regina Bond, 83, of the Har Sinai senior citizens apartments on Fords Lane in Northwest Baltimore.
"I know it sounds silly, but I can't walk to the library down the street because I have bad legs and I can't walk that far. But I'd do anything I possibly could to help out if it wouldn't cost too much money."
The Pratt budgets $175,000 a year for the operation and maintenance of its mobile library fleet, a service of the library since 1949. New, full-size bookmobiles cost well over $150,000.
Averil Kadis, spokeswoman for the Pratt, said that the plight of the bookmobiles is a matter of wear and tear on already abused machinery, and an agency too poor to replace them. "We tried to keep them on the road as long as they would run," said Mrs. Kadis, who noted that the main bookmobile has operated for months without lights, air-conditioning or heat.
"But it's at the point now where they just won't run. The guts of these machines are out of order or missing or so antique that they need real help."
The library's large van, a Gerstenslager purchased new in 1975, has an engine that won't start, an oil leak, a broken generator, faulty air brakes, a damaged steering cable, and lights, air-conditioning and heating units that haven't worked for quite some time.
The Pratt's smaller book van, a 1979 Ford, has a broken generator and a loose transmission and needs new windshield wipers.
The third city bookmobile, a 1966 Chevrolet donated to the Pratt by WBAL-TV last year with 98,000 miles on it, needs carburetor work and a new fuel pump and has an exhaust pipe with a hole in it and an engine that misfires.
The Pratt's budget, heavily subsidized by the state, has declined every year since 1988.
In May of 1990 the library decided to abandon all bookmobile service, but restored it after public complaints.
The library could scale down from a full-sized bus-length bookmobile to a small truck or van that simply delivers books selected by readers ahead of time, but the library users enjoy the social aspects of a bookmobile visit.
"People in the senior centers like to get out of the house and come on the truck and browse through the collection and talk to our staff. It's an event," said Florence Brown, chief of the Pratt's extension service, which manages the vehicles.
"They don't want us just coming out and dropping off some books. They want to climb up on the truck and see what's new, the same way people like to come to the library."
But if the Pratt cannot find a way to purchase a new van, it may not matter how much library officials want to continue such service.
"What's wrong with the bookmobiles today may not be what was wrong with them last week," said Ms. Brown.
"These things are old, they're on their last legs. It's always better to have one thing that works than three that don't, but where are we going to get money for a new one?"