The bookshelf is a series of lime green squares, each holding a haphazard collection of books. Titles range from ‘Hermeneutic Philosophy and the Sociology of Art’ to ‘Around Bruges in 80 Beers’, from ‘Fundamentals of Industrial Administration Vol. 1’ to ‘Dragon Bones’. I crouch with curiosity, head tipped to read the vertical spines. My fingers track through tall hardbacks and thin dog eared paperbacks as I assess the titles, often pulling books out to read the blurb. I’m at the Kilburn Station Book Exchange, a recent addition to the station and one that’s grabbed my attention every time I go there to garden on the platform. Around me, people tap in and out of the ticket barrier while others queue to top up oysters. I remain perching low in front of the shelves, oblivious to this human traffic, lost in a reverie of books and the stories that they tell.

It isn’t only the stories told through print that interest me. I love book exchanges for the hidden back stories contained within the physical object of the book. My imagination gets to work: how did these books get here? Why were they abandoned? Has the chemist finished their studies and bought new, more recent reference books?  Or did those textbooks belong to someone who gave up science long ago - someone who found them hidden in some dusty box, a painful reminder of forgotten dreams not realised? Or perhaps a local college just had a clear out. And who will pick these books up next? I see threads of knowledge interwoven from person to person as books pass from hand to public shelf to hand, a shuttle weaving ideas and stories from mind to mind, a tapestry whose common thread is the Kilburn Station commuters.

Suddenly I become aware of legs standing next to me. Looking up I see a tall man with white hair holding a handful of books and a stamp. He looks down at me and asks, slightly awkwardly, “Are you Helene?” I stand up abruptly and extend my hand. “Yes, and you must be Gerry.” Gerry Weston , a core member of the local Mapesbury Residents Association, is the brain behind the book exchange and is still the main co-ordinator, regularly replenishing the shelves with donations from the local area.

I watch as he stamps each book before placing them on the shelves. “To stop people from just taking them to sell on” he explains. Sitting over steaming coffees a little later Gerry tells me that he was initially inspired by the Acton Central station pop-up library. Then Cricklewood library co-ordinated with Willesden Green station and set up one there. Gerry thought – why not have one at his local station in Kilburn? Lia Colacicco, local councillor, took the initiative with Carl Painter, the Kilburn Station manager, supporting the idea; so Gerry and his wife, after struggling with the flat pack bookshelf, set up the book exchange in January this year.

Since then book donations have arrived from around the local community, including contributions from Cricklewood library and four stacks of books handed on from the Cricklewood station book exchange. While Gerry is still having to make regular visits to restock the shelves he hopes that “soon it will become self-sustaining” as people return books or bring their own used books on their way to the train.

In the days of e-books and public library closures there is something so reassuring about this humble bookshelf at the station. It’s also exciting in its unpredictability. Unlike a traditional library there’s no reference system, no way to locate a specific book. It’s a lucky dip that ignites the treasure hunter in me, the thrill of finding that jewel of a book that will contribute to my life in some small or large way. And in this book, maybe a stranger’s name inscribed on the endpapers - a reminder that someone else’s life also contains the imprint of this book, a reminder that knowledge and stories are shared experiences.

This random nature of a public book exchange is, for me, a celebration of human diversity unfettered by formal structures or exclusivity. It makes me think of something Virginia Woolf wrote when asked to answer the question “How should one read a book?” She says:

                After all, what laws can be laid down about books?.....To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what    value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions- there we  have none.[i]

With libraries becoming increasingly scarce perhaps it will become more and more the role of pop-up libraries and book exchanges such as the one at Kilburn Station to provide us with these “sanctuaries” where we are free to explore the world and our humanity through the act of reading.

Our coffees now reduced to cooling puddles at the bottom of our cups Gerry declares that he needs to go and help someone prune their apple tree. Before he runs off I ask him, “What are you reading at the moment?” Elena Ferrante, an Italian saga, is the answer. He’s also quite into thrillers, Ian Rankin being a favourite. I shake my head, no I haven’t read these. After he’s gone I reflect, with gratitude, that while Gerry and I both share a love of books we have each had individual reading ‘journeys’. We have read different books, learnt different things, while navigating through the “conglomeration and huddle of confusion”[ii] that is the world of print. Without such differences, how could a book exchange flourish and function?

A couple of weeks after this meeting I come to the station for my monthly gardening. This time I come charged with a handful of books, already read and no longer needed. I place them in a gap on the shelf and entrust them to the vagaries of the Kilburn public. One person’s discarded book, another person’s unputdownable page turner.



Please bring your used and no longer needed books to Kilburn Station and stock up the shelves of the Kilburn Station Book Exchange. Feel free to browse and take a book too!

[i] Virginia Woolf, How Should One Read A Book, 1932. From “On Reading, Writing and Living with Books”, pg 7-8 The London Library, Pushkin Press, 2016

[ii] Virginia Woolf, How Should One Read A Book, 1932. From “On Reading, Writing and Living with Books”, pg 8 The London Library, Pushkin Press, 2016

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Comment by Ursula on May 1, 2017 at 6:12
Hi Helene! I really enjoyed reading this, especially as I have contributed books to the shelves and an about to donate more. I share your interest in the stories within the stories and often momentarily people-watch the book-browsers as I pass through the station. Great initiative!
Comment by Jane Siegel on April 14, 2017 at 20:03

As I comment, someone on the radio talks about books and reading. Apparently 1/3 of people in Britain never read for pleasure. Yesterday at the airport only two of us 'dinosaurs'in the waiting area passed the time reading a book. So these popup station book exchanges are reassuring! I've been meaning to have a rummage on my shelves to contribute. Note to self: do!!

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