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In This Club, Books Free to a Good Roam

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:

"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.

He describes the appeal as "the message-in-the-bottle thing. The randomness of what will happen to this book and how the next person who picks it up will react to it. . . . Sometimes these books take on lives of their own."

He says he once left a book at an ATM in Alexandria, and months later was thrilled to see it receive a new journal entry: "I found this at a train station in Beijing."

The site was founded in 2001 by Ron Hornbaker, 43, a self-described "serial entrepreneur and technologist" in San Mateo, Calif., who has since moved on to other inventions.

He says by phone that the BookCrossing idea blossomed quickly. He was fascinated with the idea of tracking physical objects over the Internet, and while mulling over ideas one night, he recalls, he looked at his shelf of dusty books and "the light bulb went off. . . . I had no idea how big it would get."

Now it has almost 800,000 members who've created a wacky sort of global library. It's run from Sandpoint, Idaho, by Hornbaker's business partner, Bruce Pederson, who says that these days BookCrossing is "kind of in that area between a nonprofit and a hard-core dot.com."

BookCrossers, sometimes called BCers, often mark their books with stickers bought via the site that feature its distinctive logo, a yellow diamond with a simple cartoon image of a book with arms and legs -- a book on the run. It's known in BC circles as Ballycumber, a reference to a term used by the author Douglas Adams for "one of the six half-read books lying somewhere in your bed."

The site posts frequently updated stats on the member with the largest number of books registered (34,346, courtesy of a retired librarian in Minnesota). The most frequently registered book is "The Da Vinci Code" (3,479 copies are in transit around the world).

The best BookCrossing journey has to be that of a copy of Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity," placed by a Scottish BookCrosser on the summit of a "wee bittie hill" in the highest village in Scotland six years ago. According to journal entries, it was picked up by someone with the name explorer-21, who wrote, "hopefully I'll be able to help it on its journey, maybe onto a much bigger hill." A week later explorer-21 reported having left it on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. The book's last entry is from a German physician, who described receiving it as a gift from a patient while he was working at a Tanzanian hospital. ("Thanks for the book!" the doctor wrote. "It looks a bit battered but still ok.")

"That's kind of the epitome," Johns says after relating the story. "I keep hoping one day I'll get one that good."

Madeline Guzman, 61, a quality auditor for a home health agency who lives in Rockville, says she's a BCer because she loves books, and "seriously, how many times in life are you going to reread a novel? Go give a book a life!" But she's in it even more for the camaraderie with fellow BookCrossers. "We just click," she says. "They're fun."

Guzman is one of about 50 members of Yahoo's "BC in DC" group, and about 12, including Groves and Johns, regularly show up for monthly meetings at coffee shops or book-hunting expeditions. They also take periodic field trips to The Book Thing of Baltimore, a free-book warehouse, where they fill their car trunks with future releases. In April 2011, the site will hold its 10th-anniversary bash and annual convention in Washington, for the first time. The BC in DC group is already planning the festivities.

The most enthusiastic among them have found ways to prevent BCing from getting stale, sometimes by creating release "challenges" -- releasing books that fit within a certain category. Groves has found herself swept up in the "Christmas in July" challenge and another for the color brown. When she leaves another Harlequin, "Montana Christmas," on a bench on Connecticut Avenue, she says happily, "It's going to count twice: There's the Christmas challenge and it's got 'tan' in the title -- for the color challenge!"

There are also "themed releases," in which there's a connection between the book's title and its release site. Johns gets a big kick out of these. His favorite was leaving the Margaret Truman mystery "Murder in the White House" -- along with "Peter Cottontail" -- on the South lawn when he was at the Easter Egg Roll with his daughters a few years ago.

And on a cross-country road trip with his family last month he stopped in Roswell, N.M., to place "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" on a chair at the International UFO Museum and Research Center.

Groves and a few BookCrossing friends recently have found, as she puts it, "another crazy hobby." It involves hunting for historical landmarks and recording visits to them on a site called Markeroni.com. "We'll go out and map out where all these various historical markers are," Groves says, "and we'll leave books along the way."

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