The Dream of a Community Bookcase

Could an American city embrace and support a “community bookcase”?

Apparently there are cities across Europe where bookshelves sit on sidewalks, jam-packed with novels and non-fiction, just waiting to enlighten those passing by.  Each one operates on an honor system.  You’re welcome to pick up a book or two at your leisure, just as long as you’re willing to replace it with a book of your own in the coming days.

Here in Amurica (misspelling intentional), we’ve taken to a different type of book exchange.  We’re all about the online book exchange variety, such as BookMooch.

Without the strong community oversight of many European cities – like this one in Germany – the idea of putting free books out on an American street seems absolutely ludicrous.  Erect a bookcase, stuffed with books out on a sidewalk and it’s easy to imagine that within hours all the good books would be gone (and not replaced) and the not so great ones would be defiled and strewn across the ground.  The bookcase itself would then be hauled off quicker than most residential curbside items.

Too bad.  Because ultimately, it’s sort of a huge waste of energy to ship a book across the country for a trade you could have made with a neighbor down the street.

So, back to my original question.  Could a city like Decatur, or any of it’s surrounding Georgia city brethren and sistren, EVER support something such as this?  Maybe with a few tweaks? Or will we forever be regulated to online, long-distance sharing, supported by a heavily subsidized mail system?

h/t: DCPLive

39 thoughts on “The Dream of a Community Bookcase”


    1. Absolutely not…especially since they’re the ones who originally posted the link (and thus received the hattip).

      The difference being that a community bookcase is a way to share and trade your own personal books and that it’s a more casual experience, with no due dates, etc.

      1. Maybe it’s not so casual, but the Decatur Library and all of the other branches rely heavily on donated books for their paperback collections. When you donate your books to any of our libraries, you are contributing to your neighborhood bookcase and the library takes care of all the maintenance (and gives you a tax receipt). At the Toco Hill – Avis G. Williams library, we add “new” books to our paperback spinners every week; today it was some very nice copies of all the Sookie Stackhouse books. If you’ve got books to donate, don’t forget the Library and our Friends groups! And thanks for the mention, DM and Jim.

  1. It would be nice, but somehow I think a neighborhood where kids spray graffiti on playground equipment, adults do so near tornado sirens and who-knows-who throws rocks through business’s signs is not quite ready for something that works on the honor system.

  2. it would be wonderful! While placing it inside a business would undoubtedly reduce the likelihood of vandalism, abuse, or misuse, I really love the concept in its purest form, which is placing the bookcase on the street. Interesting to think about locations…

  3. Forgot to add…of course, it’s going to get abused by a few, but would be a great community exercise, to see if good neighbors outnumber bad.

  4. What a great idea! Venetian Pools has a community bookcase for books and magazines that operates all summer and is great. Many churches have them too.

    If there’s any place besides rural villages in Vermont or Minnesota that can handle this, it would be Decatur! I think a community bookcase would do well to be placed someplace very public but not literally on the street where weather, pranksters, or hoodlums could sabotage it. What about inside City Hall or the Old Courthouse or the library entryway or Decatur Rec Center? The police station or firehouse would be a location that ought to be fairly theft- and mischief-free.

    The City Schools of Decatur Admin building is another possible site but it’s awfully hard to get to given Scott Blvd., the parking, the flood plain, and how it sits on the outer outskirts of town. 😉

    If the concept worked in one location, no reason not to have several community bookcase locations around town. If anyone forms a committee to deal with this, I volunteer to help!

    1. Well, having had a child attend Westchester for seven years, I don’t think getting to the CSD Admin. offices is THAT difficult. But I rather doubt they’d want to take this on. I much prefer putting a bookcase inside of a business, like a coffee shop, restaurant, maybe even a grocery store? I bet Agnes Scott might put a bookshelf somewhere for us. Hey, I’d donate a bunch of books to get this started!

      As for shipping books across the country….well, I’m a member of Paperback Book Swap. http://www.paperbackswap.com/index.php
      and I really like the way you can get EXACTLY the book you want quickly. I doubt a neighborhood book shelf would go to the trouble to index and catalogue books that are available.

    2. If there’s any place besides rural villages in Vermont or Minnesota that can handle this, it would be Decatur!

      Yeah, because we are so competent and mature about things like tornado warnings and such. We really are better than everyone else. I say put it in front of the Peer Wellness Center or 5th Avenue School. How about in the middle of the giant unused parking lot at 315 W. Ponce?

      1. All truly great ideas even if they were meant sarcastically. One way to get folks over their bubbling fury (and it’s been a bit warm on both sides of all of these issues) is to have them read and bump into one another at bookshelves! One of the most heartwarming aspects of Decatur is the way folks fight, I mean advocate, tooth and nail over issues they care about, maybe going too far sometimes and accusing one another of evil, and then come together over playdates, volunteer efforts for Haiti, church activities, Decatur Rec sports, coffee shop routines, and just friendly waves while walking down the street.

        Saying that Decatur has a lot in common with small town Vermont or Minnesota isn’t saying it is better. Literature and history clearly point to the limitations and sometimes evil that exists in small towns, e.g. gossip, cliques, self-appointed royalty, even prejudices and injustice, etc. There’s times after a snarky post on this blog that I don’t feel like going out in Decatur because I’m paranoid about who’s who. But there’s pluses too. In NYC, if you leave anything in sight for more than an hour in your parked car, however inexpensive, the odds that your car will be broken into are extremely high. In Decatur, if you forget and leave your door unlocked with all your kids sports equipment inside, the odds are high that you’ll be lucky and it will be there later. (But it’s not 100% so still lock your car!) Hence, community bookshelves might work.

        Ok, who has an old bookshelf and let’s vote on where the first one should go!

  5. What about the playground/park near the post office? Looks like a good percentage of the city ends up there are some point during the week. It is inside a fence but is relatively “open” to passersby. Parents could borrow/read/return books while their kids & pets play. Perhaps put up a little rain awning over it. Sounds wonderful to me. The sound of rain and reading a book….
    Sorry, I am digressing.

    It could be an insider thing- the community would know, but there wouldn’t be the need to have it advertised with signs or placed prominently on a street.

    I think avoiding the area near the Marta station would help. Even I would be tempted to “borrow” a book for a long ride to the airport on Marta, given the prices of books/magazines once you get inside the airport. if it were near the Marta station. Too easy…

  6. I think this is a great idea. Lots of options worth exploring. I know that some loft apartment buildings have public bookcases too.

    I’d like to help with this too.

  7. Why intentionally misspell ‘America’? Is this the best way to go about community organizing; by politicizing every issue?

  8. Instead of talking about whether it would work, why not try an experiment? A free bookcase from Craiglist, some donated books and a partner business would have it up and running in no time at little to no cost. It could be a PR tool for the business, whether a coffee shop, bookstore or some other kind of retail outlet.

    1. I’ve got plenty of books to start swapping. Just post the location and I’m there!

      (P.S.: My husband has plenty of bookcases from his bachelor days in our attic, complete with dusty books, that I’d love to donate but I don’t have any jurisdiction over them.

      1. Although advanced reading (free) copies aren’t as common as they once were, the DBF could certainly kick in plenty of current or upcoming titles for something like this. We have been known to set out tables of free books in the past, just to clear out our shelves. In our case, we’d be just as happy if they never came back.

  9. Personally, I can see both sides of putting in a business.
    One one hand, they may get additional exposure/business.
    On the other, they could end up feeling that they are the (unpaid) town librarian with questions:

    “Have you seen So & So come in to return that copy of the Davinci Code? I’ve been in 3 times this week! If you see them, ask when they intend to return that book and call me!”

    Would not necessarily occur with the Davinci Code, but you probably understand what I mean.

  10. This is an excellent idea. I do think this could work in Decatur, especially since downtown Atlanta has one of these type of things — they call it a reading room and it’s in Woodruff Park. The area is staffed by volunteers and now it looks like a kiosk with a roof was built right next to the reading room. If it gets off the gound, I’ll donate books and magazines that I would otherwise have sent to Goodwill.

    1. Will have to go check that out the next time I’m in the area. If it can work in Woodruff Park, I think it could certainly work in Decatur!

  11. Didn’t we already try this with bikes? Specifically, the Yellow Bike program? As I recall the honor system didn’t work out so well…

    1. I think bikes fall into a different category. Books offer less mobility and resale value! Actually, I never heard why the Yellow Bike program ceased. Was it theft? Or lack of demand? Lack of volunteers?

      1. Safety issue: Too many people were reading borrowed books while riding borrowed bikes.

        Seriously, while I have some doubts about how well this would work, it sounds like an interesting experiment. It’s a low risk venture, so why not give it a shot? Maybe put a shelf up by the Brick Store and call it BSP (Book Shelf Public…OK there’s a reason I’m not in marketing, but you get the general idea).

  12. It sounds great in theory, but:

    1. It would not be a positive development in the eyes of our beloved independent booksellers.
    2. Any such bookcase within walking distance of the Marta station would be emptied, forthwith.

    1. I agree that books might disappear faster than they might get stocked, but that would mean people are READING. And that is a good thing.

    2. What independent booksellers? No one is left in Decatur except Little Shop of Stories and the used bookstore across from the high school, right? There’s Blue Elephant but that’s over the city border, right?

      I don’t really think a community bookshelf competes with bookstores. One goes to a bookstore for the completeness and variety of offerings, not to mention a decent shelving system so one can find a particular book. A community bookshelf offers a different experience–not just a chance to pick up books, but also a chance to recycle books, especially those that one bought for a decent price at a bookstore and hates to just dump at Goodwill not knowing if anyone will ever use it or if it will be dumpstered.

      Another community shelf (or perhaps drawer) idea is manufacturer or store coupons. We are all inundated with lots of coupons, only a few of which are relevant to our shopping needs. Meanwhile, someone else always has the coupons we’re craving. I’ve used passive coupon swaps in the past and they work real well. And I’ve never seen anyone just grab the whole bunch and run off with them!

      The whole idea of community swaps is that people don’t want to just dump their valued books or other stuff. They want to feel that they will have a good use somewhere. That’s why I think that thieves will not bother to steal community books as long as the shelf is kept somewhere in the view of others, e.g. in Decatur Rec or a store or a library. There’s only so many books that one can carry in one armful and a wheelbarrow would be noticed!

    3. Can’t say I agree with you on the first point TeeRuss.

      I’d be interested in LSOS’s opinion (DM’s FIRST sponsor), but I’d say that the more the community thinks about books and trades books and READS books, the better off a bookstore would be.

      It’s not a one-for-one sorta deal.

      A person looking to trade a book or pick up a free one from a limited selection, isn’t necessarily the same person looking to buy a specific book at LSOS. But maybe a free book gets someone reading a certain author they never would have read before, and they get hooked and want to buy the next one. They’re gonna have the same options as before. Library, Amazon, B&N, LSOS, etc.

      1. Some years ago, when we were looking into the feasibility of opening Little Shop of Stories in downtown Decatur, we were told by people in the industry that the presence of a strong local library was a positive factor. This struck me as illogical at first, but a well-used library is indicative of a local population of readers. The more people are in the habit of reading, the more likely that they’ll buy books (as well as check them out from the library or swap with friends). So I’m in complete agreement with Invincible Summer: people reading is a good thing. Put up a bookshelf!

    4. If MARTA riders cleaned off the shelves, I wouldn’t object. Perhaps they’d put books back. Getting more people reading is a good thing, right?

  13. I say try it what do we have to lose. If they are stolen and not replaced at least we know that there are some educated thieves out there. I think inside the books cover we should write something so everyone remembers where they got the book from. I know in my house books show up all the time I think they are multipling. :o)

  14. Hmm…we’d probably have to get city approval, and what with all the recent wrangling of newspaper boxes, we’d most likely be limited in our location options.

    What happens when it rains on these things?

    1. I, too, have books to seed it with, in the beginning.
      Maybe if we scrounged some materials, somebody with the skills would build us a bookcase with plexiglass in the doors, all sealed up with exterior or marine paint/varnish. I’m thinking of that bulletin board thing in Oakhurst, across from MoJo and the U Joint, only built as a bookcase instead of a bulletin board.

  15. I think it could be a wonderful thing. I’ve always loved browsing for books in thrift stores. The randomness has led to treasures that I might never have discovered otherwise.

    And it’s great to learn that donated paperbacks really can make their way into the Decatur Library’s collection. I’d love to return the favor to them for providing so many enjoyable hours of reading and entertainment.

  16. Wow, great response to this!

    I’ll follow up with the city and find out what needs to be done to go about this legally. Once we have an idea of where it can go, we can move on to finding a bookcase to fulfill the task.

    I’m pretty sure it’s going to need doors. And depending on where it is located it may need to be water resistant.

    I’m already thinking too far down the road. Like a weekly post detailing 5 random books on the shelf.

  17. Love the idea and I have a few to donate. Can I suggest the Decatur Library as an actual location for the bookcase? I work for a library and we have one near the entrance. It’s not a big shelf and it’s all based on the honor system. Some days there are meager pickings. Some days there are only trashy romances. But almost always I see books in there. It’s not that over thought and it works.

    If not the Library, then maybe a few businesses would like to participate in a “Books Around Decatur” type thing. I could see small bookcases inside places like Dancing Goat, Karvana, Brick Store Pub, the Post Office (OMG, the post office could totally use a book case because there is ALWAYS a long line), etc. I think putting one outside, especially with all the rain, makes it more complicated that it needs to be.

    1. Fine by me. The kids books have never worked as well as the adult books on the “community shelf” at Venetian Pools. They just disappear, don’t get replaced. But that might not be the case elsewhere. At kid’s consignment sales, the books are usually a real popular area.

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