Tourist Tip #184 / The Free Sidewalk Library of Used Books

The tradition of leaving used books on the sidewalk is a treat for all. Tourist, you can be a part of this caring sharing.

Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden
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Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden

Israel's love of books sometimes literally spills into the streets. Free, spontaneous circulating libraries might pop up on sidewalks in other countries, but I personally haven't seen it anywhere else. For the savvy tourist, this offers an extraordinary opportunity to peek into the personal collections of Israeli readers. The findings, unsurprisingly, are eclectic – everything from children’s books and cook books to trashy novels, classic literature and religious texts.

Sometimes people have a surplus of books: They move to smaller quarters and need to weed their possession, elderly relatives die leaving libraries they cherished but nobody else really wants and sometimes – like now – it is necessary to spring clean and get rid of unwanted stuff.

The Israeli solution: Place the books on the sidewalk and let passersby help themselves.

I came across a huge treasure trove of discarded books in a number of languages on Hebron Road in Jerusalem last week. (It’s gone by now; at some point the waste management people collected what was left of it and anyway the rain that came the next day would have made paper mache of the books, alas.)

But seizing the moment, I found some gems, among them a charming little book entitled “A Day with John Sebastian Bach” by May Byron with a faded brown inscription: “To darling Mary with best X-mas wishes from Laura Illegible, 1917.”

I also took a gorgeous book in French, “Le Congres du Monde” (1979), with a text by Jorge Luis Borges, edited by the Italian publisher Franco Maria Ricci, printed on handmade paper, from a numbered limited edition of 3,000, with intricate colored plates of Tantric cosmological miniatures. I think both Borges and the Brahmins would be glad to know I have given the book a new life.

And finally, I scooped up a paperback or two for those moments when an e-reader just won’t do.

Thus, dear tourist, if you finished your airplane paperback, please don’t throw it away so you don't have to carry it home. Instead, consider setting it out at a bus stop or on a stone wall where a passerby will see. Someone will pick it up and give it another life, and perhaps your next read is not far away.

Books on the sidewalk: Just take 'em.Credit: Vivian Eden
Illustration: books.Credit: Vivian Eden