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In the BookCrossing Club, You Give Page Turners to Strangers You May Never Meet

Christal Groves and her 2-year-old son, affectionately known as "Lil'grovers,"find a good location for a Harlequin, "Outlaw Bride," at the National Zoo.
Christal Groves and her 2-year-old son, affectionately known as "Lil'grovers,"find a good location for a Harlequin, "Outlaw Bride," at the National Zoo. (Ricky Carioti - The Washington Post)

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By Christina Ianzito
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Christal Groves strolls down the Asia Trail at the National Zoo on this sweaty summer afternoon, pulling a yellow wagon that carries her 2-year-old son, known as "Lil'grovers," and 23 books she wants to give away. They're all in plastic bags with bright-yellow sticky notes:

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"FREE BOOK! TAKE ME HOME!"

Groves shoves one under a statue of two otters. She plops another, "The Cat Who Came for Christmas," below the sign for the fishing cats exhibit, and a Harlequin called "Outlaw Bride" on the bench on the way to the Bird House. She keeps track of each book's location on a chart pinned to a bright-green clipboard.

"I've learned if you leave them very deliberately, nobody asks questions," Groves explains.

Groves is a member of BookCrossing, a free-book-tracking Web site where anyone can, as a brochure puts it, "share your books with the world and follow their paths forever more!" Its fans can register a book, add a brief journal entry, then place it in a public spot. The hope is that someone else will pick it up, record their find online and pass it on -- becoming a link in a long chain of serendipitous literary discoveries.

Groves -- a 32-year-old stay-at-home mom who lives on Bolling Air Force Base with her husband, Craig -- is one of the most ardent of the Washington area members -- an eclectic group of book lovers who tend toward the quirky side of normal (the word "crazy" usually comes up when they're asked what spouses or friends think of their hobby).

Since joining in 2003, she has registered 8,212 books on the site (where each one gets a BookCrossing ID number for tracking purposes), giving some away at book fairs and releasing 5,320 "into the wild," always with an explanatory note prompting the next reader to add to the book's story on the Web site.

Her favorite release spots are well-trafficked areas around the Mall, or on a Metro train. On the train she usually leaves them sans plastic bag, since there's no need for weatherproofing indoors and "a plastic bag seems a little more terrorist."

Getting a follow-up online journal entry is known as "getting a catch," which happens with about 10 percent of the books released through BookCrossing.

"I have learned to be patient," Groves says. One week after her zoo visit, only one of the 30 books she released en route to and at the zoo had received a journal entry: "1993 Keepsake Christmas Stories." Someone from Lasgraisses, France, wrote: "Saw the book on a metro seat. Green Line, washington DC, greenbelt station . . . I'll realase [sic] it once i'm done with reading it."

On another outing, Groves sat in a Starbucks on H Street NW, in view of a newspaper box outside, where she'd placed "The Bridges of Madison County" marked with a BookCrossing sticker. Just a few minutes later, a young guy in a baseball cap and tattoos on his arms looked it over, shoved it in his backpack and took off.

Andrew Johns, a 41-year-old patent examiner with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, has been releasing books for six years, for a total of 3,500, usually during his lunch hour.


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