Book Crossing: Locals set books free

By Mythili Rao

It was no accident that Candace Cone left a copy of Ayn Rand's Anthem on a Hook box on the Downtown Mall in April. The Charlottesville resident was Book Crossing.

"Our goal," proclaims Missouri-based Ron Hornbaker's website, bookcrossing.com, simply, is "to make the whole world a library."

Launched last spring, Book Crossing facilitates book-swapping among strangers by maintaining online records for registered books. Members of the site can release a beloved (or unwanted) text "into the wild," and track the book's travels as its new readers log back into the site.

As of Tuesday, July 9, Book Crossing boasts 15,674 members, 36,868 registered books, and "priceless good karma," according to the website. And in recent months, Hornbaker's global library has seeped into Virginia with the release of 301 books 39 which are in Charlottesville, making the city the leading Book Crossing locale in the state.

The local books on the loose which include classics (Les Miserables), bestsellers (Rapture of Canaan), and self-help titles (Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui)are scattered throughout the city, from the Downtown Mall to the Charlottesville Airport.

The Hook hunted down one such volume in the wild: New York Times bestseller Still Waters by Albemarle County-based Tami Hoag, released by a user named "Ignatius" on June 14 at Liquid Café.

Liquid's owner, Grier Runyon, had stashed the abandoned mystery novel among other lost-and-found items. "It would have just sat there," Runyon admitted, pointing out that the Book Crossing label on the inside cover, which explains the site's concept, was too inconspicuous.

Hornbaker estimates that only about 20 percent of books resurface after release; another source, Network World, guesses the figure is more like 10 percent. Hornbaker says that the site is still too young to make an accurate assessment, but concedes that the numbers could be better.

"Some people have reservations about picking up books that they see," explains Hornbaker, who has lately taken to suggesting that members additionally tag their books with a Post-It note on the cover.

Candace Cone, however, says that the low number of journal entries has more to do with apathy. "Here in Charlottesville, books get picked up, but people are slow to respond or don't respond at all," says Cone, who goes by the screenname "Frense" on the site.

She has taken to marking releases with a Post-It note or Book Crossing label on the cover, or a visible bookmark to assure that they'll be found.

"People are genuinely excited to find them," says Cone, who notes that her volumes don't remain in their release sites for long.

Cone made her first release, a humorous novel entitled The Man Who Ate the 747, nearly a year ago at a lodge in West Virginia. A woman working there found the book and read it that night. The next day, she reported that she "loved it."

Fourteen releases later, Cone has yet to hear another response from a reader or to find a book in the wild. But her enthusiasm for Book Crossing has yet to diminish. "You've got to hear back eventually," she says.

Hornbaker compares "book crossing" to fishing. "You don't catch a fish on every cast," he says. "Not every book will be found. Most of the enjoyment comes from the releasing, not from reading the files."

Cone agrees. "There's something fun about leaving it surreptitiously," she says. "Frense" has dodged airport security to leave books in terminals, left a volume in Hotcakes and at the gym and mailed a novel to France.

When a registered book is found, the Book Crossing system sends the book's original owner email notification of the discovery, connecting the books prior and current reader. "One member said it brought tears to her eyes," says Hornbaker.

For the webmaster, this kind of feedback is what makes Book Crossing the software executive's most rewarding project.

"I had always wanted to build a community website that would grow virally," says Hornbaker, president and CEO of Humankind Systems software development company.

Humankind launched Book Crossing as a company community service project. Visiting such sites as wheresgeorge.com, which follows the circulation of dollar bills, and phototag.org, which tracks disposable cameras, made Hornbaker want to extend the concept to books. "I was in a panic because I was sure it was already done," he says.

But Book Crossing remains a unique endeavor. As attention from NPR and other national media has boosts support for the site, membershipand good karmagrows. The vital stats of Harriet, one biblophile whose credo is "Give me literature or give me death," includes 1,912 registered books. Another user, "4libros," from St. Peter's, Missouri, holds the record for books freed at 363.

Like Cone, Hornbaker himself hasn't found any books in the wild, but he says that having a successful book crossing is his long-term goal.

"I'll know it's come full circle when I'm walking in the street one day and find one," he says.