Tiffany and her husband Corey Bower needed to go to The Fountains at Farah. Instead of driving, they opted to get a Lyft. 

Armando Esparza, 61, answered the call. 

He was only a short three-minute drive away. Smiling, he said hello to the couple when he picked them up. He offered mints and water. What caught the Bowers’ attention, however, was a black basket with neatly stacked books for their taking in the middle of the back seat.

Their conversation during the 10-minute drive focused on the selection of books in the basket, including Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Pinocchio” by Carlo Collodi, “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, “The Pilgrim’s Progress” by John Bunyan and a collection of stories from Greek mythology. 

“I had just picked up ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath the night before and I had decided that I was going to get a new book once a month and read it,” Tiffany Bower said. “It was like he was divinely guided that he was our Lyft driver.”

Esparza, a native of Ciudad Juárez, has been a driver for the rideshare services Uber and Lyft since 2021. He said he likes the flexibility of the work, and more importantly, he wanted a job where he could read more and practice English.

Armando Esparza adds books to a box on the back seat of his car on May 31. Esparza, a driver, buys the books at library sales and thrift stores in El Paso and Juárez. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“This job permits me to interact with important and interesting people,” Esparza said in Spanish. “I have also read or listened to three books each week. And the other thing is I’ve been able to put books into rider’s hands from the very first ride I had.”

Esparza said giving away books was accidental at first. His mother had asked him to take a box full of books to donate to the library. He put them in the back seat of the car and went to get his first passenger. 

“He looked in the box, we struck up a conversation and I told him to take a book if he wanted to and I realized this could be a great opportunity to plant the seed and joy of reading into everyone’s hands,” he said. 

Esparza said the books are free and that he doesn’t push the books on everybody, just those who show interest. 

“First, they have to ask about them,” Esparza said. “Not everyone is interested, or they are just wanting to get to their destination and their mind is on other things.”

Some riders ask about the books.

“Then I know they are interested,” he said, comparing their curiosity to fertile soil. “The soil to plant the seeds of wisdom and curiosity in literature is good and the timing is right. Because the soil may be fertile but the timing isn’t always right. People have to be ready; you can’t force it.”

Esparza said he has a few conditions before riders can take a book: Take one book per ride, read and finish it in five days, then pass it onto someone else outside the household and have them abide by the same rules. 

He added that he makes sure the books he gives out can be read in five days or less. In doing this, Esparza hopes the love of reading can be spread and grow.

“This job (driving) sometimes doesn’t garner me a lot of money,” Esparza said. “But a good exchange with different people, and to have the opportunity to plant a book in someone’s hand is always worth it.” 

When Esparza waits for rides, he’ll find a spot to listen to his audiobooks; or he’ll read a book on his tablet in the car. If he’s in the mood to read a physical book, draw or do some work with his laptop, he pulls out his steering wheel tray. On his dashboard he has a box of secured and neatly organized sketch pencils and writing utensils. 

Armando Esparza points out the various devices set up in the “office” of his rideshare vehicle. When he is not driving a passenger, he reads, listens to audio books or works on his own writing, including a memoir of childhood vignettes. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

When he is not driving, he spends his time in libraries and bookstores. 

“I’ll wander around and see what might look interesting and I’ll add it to my collection here,” Esparza said. “Sometimes in my conversations with other riders they’ll tell me about a new author or one I haven’t heard of, so when I go looking for books I keep those authors in mind.”

From those conversations Esparza has added a wide range of books to choose from including classics, technical books, philosophy, science, technology and more. 

The Bowers said the short drive with Esparza made their day.

“I was so entranced with the books he had,” Tiffany said. “It was the best Lyft ride I’ve ever taken. He was a pleasure. It was really warming for me and my husband.”

During her trip, Tiffany selected “To Kill A Mockingbird” because it has sentimental value to her. Her 4-year-old son’s name is Atticus after the character in the book. She said she planned on reading pages from the book to her son every night. 

In order to keep her promise to Esparza, Bower put aside “The Bell Jar,” and started reading “To Kill A Mockingbird.” A day after her drive with Esparza, she was well past the 100-page mark. The book is about 380 pages.

With a box of books to give away on his back seat, Armando Esparza waits for rideshare passengers on May 31. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Lyft, which does not allow riders to select specific drivers, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Uber only shows drivers available in a customer’s vicinity.

Harry Hartfield, a press officer for Uber, said the company wants to help Esparza with his efforts. 

“Drivers are not just the foundation of our platform, they are also pillars of their communities,” Hartfield said. “Mr. Esparza brings new meaning to ‘booking’ an Uber and we appreciate his commitment to his passengers and El Paso. We’re excited to see if we can help support his efforts.”

Esparza doesn’t have a specific area he prefers and said it’s just a matter of being at the right place at the right time.

Alex Hinojosa is an El Paso freelance journalist and a mass communications instructor at El Paso Community College.