While most of us simply disregard trash, some have found ingenious ways to use items we discard. In New York City, former sanitation worker Nelson Molina, for example, amassed a collection worth about $160,000 just from digging through the trash. And though he spent three decades putting it together, the “Treasures in the Trash Museum” doesn’t belong to him. In Colombia, a man’s spent about two decades rooting through the trash for his community.
José Alberto Gutiérrez is a sanitation worker in the South American country. From about 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., Gutiérrez collects trash in Bogota’s wealthier neighborhoods. When he came across Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in the trash, it sparked something in him. He began collecting the books others had thrown away.
Eventually, he ended up with a collection large enough that he started a library – La Fuerza de las Palabras – in his home 15 years ago. Unlike other home libraries, this one is open to the public, and specifically serves the children in his neighborhood who don’t always have access to books.
According to the Associated Press, José lives in an approximately 968 square foot home in La Nueva Gloria, and everything save 215 square feet is covered with books. After about 20 years of collecting books, he’s become known as “el Señor de los Libros.”
Gutiérrez only attended school up to the second grade, but his mother always stressed the importance of books. “She would read to me every night,” he said, adding that his wife and three children have been equally supportive. “She made it so that I fell in love and trusted books. For me, books are the best invention, and they are the best thing that can happen to a human being.”
His favorite books are Cien años de soledad and El general en su laberino by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez. But it’s another Colombian author who his young patrons ask for: Germán Castro Caycedo. The kids love La bruja, Mi alma se la dejo al diablo, El hueco, and Perdido en el Amazonas.
He’s collected as many as 20,000 books, AJ+ reports. However, it’s impossible for him to keep them all, so he also donates them to others across Colombia. He once sent 16,000 pounds of books to a library in Buenaventura.
A few years ago, he told the AP that he’d like to have his own museum dedicated to books. But he doesn’t need a museum to have a lasting legacy. He’s already changing the lives of so many in his own community. “When the library opened, I was very happy because I could come in and read books,” a young girl named Hillary told AJ+. “In my house, there are hardly any books. I could see the books and learn new things.”
Get to know el Señor de los Libros below in AJ+’s video profile: