Guerrilla Book Exchange Survives Fire and Ice in Urban Forest Preserve

When I first moved to this neighborhood, I started walking for exercise. Step by step I discovered a forest preserve, a hidden pond where an occasional migrating swan can be seen, a stream where salmon swim uphill in season, and an abandoned WWII-era Nike missile site, which has now reverted back to public use. All of this is connected by miles of bike and foot paths, which is alternately maintained by a variety of state, county, and forest preserve entities.

Last summer I was exploring a new section of trail, when I happened on a bookshelf in the middle of the forest. That’s right. A huge three-shelf metal cabinet with books on the shelves, neatly wrapped in plastic bags. I made a mental note to bring some books out.

Then last fall someone spray-painted the bookshelf a metallic cobalt blue. Newly stenciled letters at the top of the cabinet announced that this was the “EAST SIDE BOOK EXCHANGE”. The book exchange was ready for winter.

Then one evening I was walking on the path with some books to donate and saw some sort of reflection in the distance. Another walker joined me on the path. He spoke no English but was a student at the same school where I teach. We walked quickly in the twilight, eager to be off the path and back in an area with streetlights before nightfall. As we reached the area of the book exchange, we could see there wasn’t a reflection, but a fire. Someone had piled up all the books and set fire to them in the middle of the path. We had probably surprised them. We worked quickly to contain the fire, spreading the books out on the  path and moving them to the side so bicycle and foot traffic could pass on one side. I left the books I had carried with me on the now-empty shelves in a symbolic gesture.Who would burn books, I thought, and a few days later brought out a copy of Fahrenheit 451.

In the following weeks the book exchange did indeed rise from the ashes like a phoenix. Someone cleaned up the scorched books. Park crews mowed a large area in front of the shelf. Throughout the winter people continued leaving books, even thought the temperature was sub-freezing and the path was difficult to negotiate.

Now the snow is mostly melted and the East Side Book Exchange has more books than ever. People are no longer wrapping the books in plastic though, and last weeks’ snowstorm left many of them warped from moisture and some of them on the ground. Gently I started picking books off the ground and laying them on the shelf to dry. Then a book caught my eye and I started skimming it right in the middle of the forest as if I was really in a library. I had to take it home to finish looking at it. So now I am now a borrower too, and the guerrilla forest book exchange has come full circle.

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