carnaby-book-exchange-london-untapped-libraryThe Carnaby Book Exchange offers a respite from the busy shops of Kingly Court.

From a posh London shopping center to a wooden birdhouse in Brooklyn to a bright plastic pod in Nolita, the familiar public library is being re-imagined and reinvented. With the rise of casual neighborhood libraries that require no library card, ID or fee, any passing readers can just grab books off the shelves–if they can find the libraries first. 

The Kingly Court shopping center on London’s Carnaby Street is full of designer brands and restaurants, and at first glance the Carnaby Book Exchange seems to be another of those shops. But there’s no salesperson inside, and the shelves hold free books instead of merchandise.

carnaby-book-exchange-london-untapped-library-signThe only sign indicating the shop’s purpose is a small piece of paper in the store window explaining how the exchange works.

The process is simple: bring a book to give away, write a note in it sharing your thoughts, and exchange it for another book you pull from the rows of shelves lining the shop walls. There’s a mix of every genre–cookbooks, chick lit, thrillers, bestsellers and even some textbooks. The project was created in 2012 by fashion curation students at London College of Fashion. The goal isn’t just to encourage people to read, but to start conversations between fellow readers through the sharing of books and memories. With comfortable couches and short tables, the book exchange has a coffeeshop feel without the requisite price of a drink. Plus, there’s no one to give you the stink eye if you stay for hours.

carnaby-book-exchange-london-untapped-bookshelf-libraryTitles range from Stephen King thrillers to Superstars of the World Cup.

Other cities have no shortages of informal libraries either. The Paris-Plage, Paris’ summer pop-up beach along the Seine, has a 500-book lending library for those in need of beach reads. In New York, Bryant Park’s open-air Reading Room offers a selection of books, newspapers and magazines for visitors to peruse on site. The reading room dates back to the Great Depression, when the New York Public Library opened the Open Air Library so those without jobs could enjoy books without providing money, ID or a library card. It closed before World War II as more people found jobs. Today’s library (reopened in 2003) is an attempt to replicate the open access format of the Depression, with donations coming from publishers. This summer, the NYPL also partnered with the Brooklyn and Queens public libraries for a pop-up library on Governor’s Island. 

Other free libraries are slightly less formal, if that’s even possible. The Little Free Library movement, for instance, has over 5,000 free, informal neighborhood libraries around the world, many of them in unexpected places. Anyone can build, stock and visit one. NYC’s first Little Free Library came to Brooklyn in 2012, and is a wooden birdhouse-shaped box that houses a dozen or so books. The Little Free Libraries expanded to ten temporary locations around the city this spring in partnership with the Architectural League of NY and the PEN World Voices Festival, ranging from bright yellow plastic bubbles in Nolita to concrete bench shelters. Like the Little Free Libraries, the Corner Library offers communal sidewalk libraries geared toward the local sharing of ideas and information.

Nolita’s spaceship-looking Little Free Library encourages visitors to pop in and out.

No matter the formats of these “micro-libraries,” the ultimate goal is the same: to foster the sharing of stories and thoughts between anyone who loves reading.

Get in touch with the author @catku.