Britain: Free books for commuters

Jonangelo Molinari
Claire Wilson hands out books at London's Westminster station in February. She and a friend started, which offers free books to commuters in a bid to improve reading habits.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

LONDON – Snatching one of the free evening newspapers dished out on the streets here is almost second nature to most folks returning home from work. But now London’s army of “free sheet” pushers has some competition: a group of volunteer “librarians” who hand out free books in a bid to improve commuters’ reading habits.

The initiative was born of the frustration that friends Alfie Boyd and Claire Wilson felt at sitting in subway cars where virtually every passenger seemed to have his or her nose in one of two free newspapers that offer a diet of news and gossip.

“We realized we had to come up with an alternative,” says Mr. Boyd, co-founder of, which encourages donations of everything from classics to cookbooks. They are offered once a month outside Waterloo station, a major commuter terminal, and four others.

“It always starts with one or two curious people peeling off from the passing crowds,” Boyd says. “Then you get everyone just rummaging around in our boxes. Strangers are suddenly talking to each other about the books they love. It breaks them out of the rat race.”

Readers are encouraged to return books at a drop box when they’re done, though Boyd and Ms. Wilson fret little about this.

“From the beginning we made an agreement that if we even got 2 percent back, then that would be great – though it’s much higher,” Boyd says. “No one throws a book away. This is about getting people reading something other than what’s shoved at them. People are always going to donate. We all want others to read the books we liked.”

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