EL CERRITO – Neither a bookstore nor a library, but something of a utopian hybrid, the Bay Area Free Book Exchange almost makes a guy feel sheepish and guilty, as if he's getting away with something not entirely above-board.
There are books.
They are free.
That is all.
Feel free to grab a few – but no more than 100 per visit, please – from the long rows of shelves or boxes stacked haphazardly along the walls. All the loose affiliation of do-gooders who run the place asks is that you stamp the title page with the red-inked emblem, "NOT FOR SALE. THIS IS A FREE BOOK."
It all seems so suspiciously simple, yet too much for minds inculcated by commerce to fully grasp.
There's got to be a catch, right?
These aren't trashy pulp tomes, or neglected remainders or bios from pan-flashing reality TV stars. We're talking literature (snooty emphasis on all four syllables). We're talking former best-sellers, covers hard and soft, academic screeds and sociological studies – all available at a five-fingered discount.
But, you ask, if these books are of such quality, what are they doing moldering in a bare-walled building at a strip mall on San Pablo Avenue, next to a martial arts studio?
James Miles has heard this question before. He's a Bay Area used-book seller, who in 2009 joined with another bookseller to form the co-op.
Yeah, we know there's this thing called a library, where people can check books out and bring them back several weeks later. But libraries have a finite collection, mere drops in the publishing ocean, and crowd-contributed offerings such as at the Free Book Exchange conceivably expand the breadth of subject matter. Plus, isn't there just something about ownership that appeals to many bibliophiles?
So Miles and his book- selling comrades decided to sow the seeds of a truly free-market system by housing their overstock in El Cerrito, and encouraging people to turn in books they no longer wanted and take ones they desired.
"It's definitely worked out exactly as we thought it would," Miles said.
He's no militant Marxist nor a "Kumbaya"-chanting philanthropist, though. The Bay Area Free Book Exchange is a for-profit enterprise. Not much profit, mind you, maybe enough to "cover the PG&E bill and rent," Miles said.
Here's how the "profit" part works: When a person drops off a book, the co-op partners "keep the ones that we think we can sell" and shelve the rest.
"We're upfront with everyone," Miles said.
Profit in name only, really. The instances in which the co-op partners have actually received a valuable book are ridiculously small.
"Usually not more than 5 percent," he said. "We're not interested in best-sellers; we're interested in stapled pamphlets, something weird. The common run of book people want to read are already on the Internet for sale. We're looking for unusual stuff.
"Typically, if it is worth something, it's worth less than $100, enough to pay the electricity (bill). One time, I did get a rare first edition, but I haven't sold it yet. It's worth $1,200." (He declined to name the book.)
"We've never had any conflict with other bookstores, and I'm a bookseller myself," Miles said.
Now that Miles has taken away all guilt, a bibliophile like myself can browse with impunity. Still, I felt it my duty to bring a few of my books as offerings at this altar of bookish altruism. No dreck, either. I was willing to part with two hardbacks, "Sunset Park" by Paul Auster and "Follies" by Ann Beattie, and the paperback novel "The Hundred Brothers" by Donald Antrim.
The snob in me felt, "I'll never find something of similar literary quality."
On the very first shelf I saw some big names – Martin Amis, Richard Russo, Mona Simpson and Alison Lurie. Mixed in, of course, were, uh, lesser offerings such as "A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney" and "A Gangster's Girl" by Chunichi.
A man next to me in jeans and polo shirt moistened his index fingertip with his lower lip and plucked out "The Names," a 1982 postmodern Grahame Greene-type novel by Don DeLillo. Suddenly, imbued with book lust, I simply had to have that one. The man thumbed through "The Names" and – yes! – put it back. I wondered what the etiquette is in such a situation, how long to wait before pouncing on a reshelved book.
As I mulled that, it looked as if he was reaching back to take the DeLillo book once more. Thinking fast, I distracted him by asking, like some lounge lizard, if "he comes here often."
"First time," said Tom Conniff of Berkeley. "Just driving around on the street, saw it. It's great. You can't lose."
I asked him if he found anything interesting.
"So far, I'm not seeing a huge amount of stuff, but that one popped out," pointing to the DeLillo. "I'm interested in fiction, so DeLillo, you know but it's kind of a jumble of stuff in here."
True, the books are not alphabetized and in most cases not sorted by genre or topic.
"Guess you've got to work for it," he said, before wandering off. (Without the DeLillo book, I might add.)
Before I could snatch it up, a woman approached cradling a basket of books.
"I come every week," said Frances Lane of Richmond. "It's the fun of finding something, like in a treasure hunt. Nothing is organized, and you just never know what you're going to find. The great thing is coming upon a book and thinking, 'Oh somebody else was interested in this, too.' "
I asked, just to assuage my guilt, whether she liked the writer Don DeLillo. She shrugged. I took down "The Names," stamped it quickly and was on my way.
THE BAY AREA FREE BOOK EXCHANGE
10520 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito
Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays
Phone: (510) 705-1200
Directions from Sacramento: Take Interstate 80 west over the Carquinez Bridge. Exit at Central Avenue. Go east two blocks. Turn left on San Pablo Avenue and go four blocks.