by Jas Faulkner
When I was in college, there was a girl on my floor whose mother managed a Waldenbooks in her hometown. Whenever the mom visited, bearing a cache of food and supplies for her daughter, she would also bring two or three boxes of paperbacks that had been stripped of their front covers for everyone to dig through.
Being a thoughtful sort of person who understood what it was like to love books and have every bit of one’s disposable income go towards ugly, overproduced and underedited required texts; she made it as easy as possible for people to find books they would love. Every box was packed one layer thick with the spines facing up so there were no surprises. Sometimes the spines of the books were reinforced with clear packing tape. I figure it was busy work for slow times in an already neat as a pin store.
The mom usually dropped the books off with her daughter, who would immediately place them in the downstairs lounge and put a sign up by the wall of residents’ mailboxes. By the next day, all or nearly all of the books were usually claimed. One afternoon, she stuck around. She was amazed at how quickly a crowd would form as each person expressed glee at finding a favourite author or called another resident’s attention to a book they might like.
“I used to put these out in front of the store and no one would tough them. The hospitals wouldn’t take them either. I know recycling is a good thing, but it always felt wrong to destroy books just because they didn’t sell soon enough. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy you all want them, I’m also a little surprised.”
There is a pleasant coda to that story. Long after her daughter graduated from college, the Waldens manager made trips to their alma mater (she was also an alumnus) and dropped off boxes of books to the women’s dorms. This went on until the Walden chain was bought out and shuttered a few years ago.
Putting books in open, accepting hands is an act of kindness I have seen again and again. No matter what form it takes, there is always the lingering affect that the gift goes so far beyond the transfer of a physical item. It is granting someone a portal to deeper thought or an escape into another place. Those oddly naked rejects that are recycled may find new life as a different book, but the ones that filter out onto the shelves of readers who may not have the cover price. Brick and mortar stores are much rarer these days, so the dumpster divers who once played literary/literacy Robin Hood are finding slimmer pickings.
Book giveaway programs such as Bookcrossing and World Book Night are great. They provide interactive ways for people to safely redistribute books without losing the interactive aspect that comes with sharing in the joy of getting/giving books. As well intentioned as these programs are, they do have their drawbacks.
Bookcrossing is fun but a time consuming way to give away books. Unless one has the funds for bookplates and book marks or a lot of printer ink, preparing books for their journey can take some time and more often than not, the recipients who aren’t already on board usually find the log in process a bit too much.
World Book Night is a gorgeous elegant combination of grass roots efforts to get book to reluctant readers and the books are beautifully produced paperbacks that are donated by most of the major publishing houses. Some may find twenty copies to be the perfect number. Others might find themselves faced with an empty box and more people wanting a book. Maybe it’s really a case of varying mileage. I found myself wishing I had more to donate early in the evening.
I gladly donate and support both of those programs, but more often than not, I find myself simply setting out books with “Free Book” written on the edge of the pages so people can simply pick them up without worry that they may be appropriating a book that was left behind by a hurried reader or the nagging feeling they should register for yet another website. When you contemplate that bag of rejects from your last trip to a UBS, consider getting out a sharpie and marking them available. In this economy, when fewer people can even contemplate the idea of disposable income much less take a trip to any kind of bookstore, this might be the first book they have picked up for pleasure in a long time.
Think of it as a way of keeping civilisation alive until things get better.