Popular driver of library on wheels leaving job to pursue business plans
By MARK RICE
He entertains preschoolers with puppet shows, helps students with homework, advises adults on job searches and guides seniors through the technology maze.
And he does his best to ensure everyone leaves with at least one book.
Eric Willis is the sole staffer of this library on wheels. He drives an average of 300 miles per week in the 26,000-pound Chattahoochee Valley Libraries digital bookmobile, equipped with six computers, three Kindles, two Nooks, two Sony e-readers, one 32-inch flatscreen TV and about 1,500 books and 100 DVDs.
The 27-year-old native and resident of Cusseta, Ga., will end his nine-year stint with the library system after Friday's shift. He is leaving to pursue a business idea he declined to reveal, but he was happy to share the memories and the life lessons he will take from those bookmobile stops in Chattahoochee, Marion and Stewart counties.
"Sometimes you have to look at new opportunities," Willis said. "I'm still a young person, I'm ambitious, and I'm trying to be an entrepreneur. I've been through so many things with the library, so it will be very hard to leave, but moving forward sometimes means you have to let go of certain things."
After he graduated from Spencer High School in 2003, Willis was activities coordinator at the Cusseta recreation center in
2004 when he learned about the library system's opening for the Muscogee County bookmobile driver. He figured he still could enjoy working with children but also meet more people and have a more diverse experience.
Suzanne Barnes, the library system's outreach coordinator, supervised Willis then.
"He was a hit right away," she said. "At the interview, he was asked about his favorite book, and he broke into an animated re-enactment of 'Abiyoyo,' the African folktale. Everyone sat there with their mouths open."
Willis switched to the digital bookmobile in 2009, when the library system needed someone with his expertise in technology to drive it. But his drive to succeed and help others went beyond the bookmobile's steering wheel. He also worked in other areas of the library system, including digital media, teen department and the Columbus Library for Accessible Services, which serves disabled patrons.
"He's been a jack of all trades," said Willis' supervisor, Gabriel Lundeen, the library system's deputy director.
Wanda Edwards, the library system's interim director, said it will be "pretty much impossible" to find someone who has all of Willis' skills and enthusiasm.
"So we'll have to double up," she said. "Since we do have branches closed one day each week, we'll have one of those staff members ride out with the driver. It will actually be good to give them an opportunity to get out and do some outreach."
The digital bookmobile serves the library system's residents in rural areas. It plugs the gap in library service when that county's library is closed one day per week. It also helps bridge the digital divide.
"There's a huge need for computer literacy," said Willis, who graduated last year with an online bachelor's degree in media production design from Full Sail University in Orlando.
"I grew up in Cusseta, so I know what it's like to not have Internet access."
Now, Willis often sees folks benefit from the digital bookmobile without even getting out of their cars. They use the bookmobile's Wi-Fi signal for their own devices.
In the bookmobile, he helps kids use Facebook and teaches grown-ups how to do Excel spreadsheets -- and sometimes vice versa.
Willis seems like he received a degree in psychology through his bookmobile tours.
"Most of the time, when parents get on, they ask what they can get their kids to read," he said. "So I ask them what their children watch on TV, because that usually has been written into a book. Or if they say their kids only like joking about farts and stuff, I'll say, 'Well, we have 'Captain Underpants' books."
Willis credits his parents, Eddie and Charlene Willis, for developing his love of books. Eddie is head of maintenance at L.K. Moss Elementary School in Buena Vista. Charlene is a nurse at Magnolia Manor in Columbus.
He said he and his wife, Krystal, a special-education teacher at Chattahoochee County High School, are committed to passing that love along to their 4-year-old son, Isaiah.
Working on the bookmobile has helped Willis grow up.
"When I was younger, I thought everybody was the same," he said. "I thought they had the same problems and dealt with them the same way. But everybody has a different problem when they get on the bookmobile, and I learned that when you help that person solve their problem, it connects you to people."
People such as Lodarius Perry, 17, an 11th-grader at Chattahoochee County High School. He visits the bookmobile when it stops by the health department in Cusseta.
"It keeps the kids out of trouble," said Lodarius, who paused and added with a smile, "It keeps me out of trouble, too."
Lodarius uses the bookmobile for homework and to look for a job. He said he doesn't use the regular library because "they don't like me up there. Eric is real nice to me here. It won't be the same without him. He has everyone laughing. It's a good time, but he also helps me get my work done. If I have questions, he's right there to answer them.
First, however, Willis had to become a better listener.
"I was too quick to say, 'Oh, here's your problem,'" he said.
If he didn't know the positive impact he was making in his customers' lives, he sure realized it when a 5-year-old girl ran up to him and hugged him at the Walmart on Airport Thruway in Columbus. Her mother explained that the only day she gets ready on time for school all by herself is Tuesdays, when Mr. Eric and the bookmobile visit her area.
"Hearing that made me very proud," Willis said. "I'm not a basketball player or a celebrity -- I'm just a guy who drives a bookmobile -- but I'm the library's best representative for some people."
Sometimes, he also is a source of hope.
One day, a woman on the bookmobile was crying because she had lost her job. Willis explained the options available to her for assistance and made calls to get her in touch with the proper agencies.
"It's not easy," he said. "You're not sitting around and reading books. You're dealing with the public, and you have to deal with them in a nice and courteous manner. You try your best to get what they need because you can be a lifeline for them."