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Swap Lit Like It's Hot

The Bay Area Free Book Exchange turns the bookstore concept on its head.

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Sandwiched between a jiu-jitsu school and a now-vacant educational supply shop on an unassuming stretch of East Bay road sits an equally unassuming storefront, distinguished only from its neighbors by two sandwich-board signs on the sidewalk and some white paint on the window, all reading "FREE BOOKS."

"I felt the traditional small bookstore business model is really not a winner in today's digital world," said Bay Area Free Book Exchange cofounder James Miles, a second-generation bookseller. "So given all that, I decided to turn the concept of a small bookstore on its head." Miles, who had been selling books online since 1999, found himself with many, many books in his Richmond warehouse that he was unable to sell. In 2009 he started the Exchange (10520 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito), which has since given away more than 190,000 books.

How it works is simple: Saturdays and Sundays, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., the public is welcome to come by, donate unwanted books, and take what they want. Volunteers work the counter, making sure you mark your finds with their "free book" stamp and that you don't take more than one hundred books per day (or thirty children's books). Though a donation isn't required to get books, it helps one feel a part of the process. "Recently I got a private university library that was clearing its stacks give the store a substantial amount of books," said Miles. "But mostly, it is just small dribs and drabs from book-loving individuals who like the free bookstore social capitalism concept." The Exchange does its share of donating, too: On a recent Sunday, two gentlemen were loading up boxes of paperbacks for the San Francisco General Hospital psych ward library.

Booklovers, I know what you're thinking: How are the books? Well, the Bay Area Free Book Exchange is not for those trying to keep up with the latest and greatest. The Exchange's amply-stocked shelves are more for true lovers of the book, lovers of reading, and lovers of the hunt. Fiction and various stripes of nonfiction are kept separate, as are paperbacks and hardbacks (and a globe-trotting array of foreign-language titles), but there's no alphabetization to aid you. And there's lots of what could be categorized as "trash," as is to be expected. (And as is not to be frowned upon by those of us who cut our teeth as much on Krantz and Sheldon as on Voltaire and Orwell.) But for every fifteenth or so pulpish title, the careful eye will find Paul Auster, Virginia Woolf, Martin Amis, Joyce Carole Oates, A.S. Byatt, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez tucked among the spines — not to mention an astonishing number of copies of Naomi Wolf's Backlash.

Miles' best find so far? "One of my employees was going on break and a box of books fell from a bench on to the floor. She started to pick them up and I said, 'No, no, you're on break.' So I started to pick up the books and found a first printing of the first hardcover edition of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the pile. It was almost as if a supernatural power was directing me to find it." This writer found a "Big Little Book" of Flash Gordon comics, circa 1935, complete with little-boy pencil drawings and a final-page epilogue: "Nuts to you."

Put that in your Kindle and smoke it. 510-705-1200 or BayAreaFreeBookCoop.com

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