Free Books!

I passed this storefront in El Cerrito, CA and thought, hmmm… it’s a store that gives away it’s merchandise for free and it has burglar bars on the window. That makes sense.

And then I thought, wait a minute, they’re giving away free books. Free books! Is that a good idea? I felt a deep sense of loss when bookstores started falling like dominoes, but I never expected them to be replaced by outlets that gave away books. If you can’t stay in business selling books, how do you keep the doors open by giving them away?

Then I realized it was probably a sneaky marketing ploy by the Book Publishers Association of America (or whatever association book publishers belong to). They’re giving away free books in the same spirit that a heroin dealer offers free samples of smack. A little taste, then another, then you’re hooked. Pretty smart, those book publishers. But then it occurred to me: if they’re so smart, why are they going broke?

I don’t know how long the Free Books! storefront in El Cerrito has been in operation, but it proudly displays a sign saying 167,257 books given away. 167,257 books! In her heyday, J.K. Rowling could sell more units that that on a winter morning in Novgorod. Imagine if the Free Books! store was a Free iPhones! store? The line would be around the block. They’d have to hire the Hell’s Angels to provide security.

A store offering free books. I suppose it was inevitable. But doesn’t it make more sense to stack  the books on the sidewalk, where they’d be easily accessible, twenty-four hours a day? Then the burglar bars could function as street art, a kind of metaphor for modern life: the valuable stuff is out there, free for the taking; the useless, empty crap, the stuff we’re supposed to focus on, is locked up tight.

Burglar bars protecting an empty store—now that’s what I call progress.

Gordon W. Dale is the author of the novel Fool’s Republic, published by North Atlantic Books.
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2 Responses to Free Books!

  1. Yang Song says:

    Interesting store and story! It’s a like a oasis in the dessert 🙂
    Does this store accept donation of used books? Next time when I go El Cerrito, I may drop off some books/magazines that I don’t need.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Gordon W. Dale says:

    Hi Yang. Yes I believe it does take donations. It’s on San Pablo Avenue.