Walk around the streets of Vienna for just 15 minutes and you are sure to find a public bookshelf. Placed on squares, street pavements, in old shop doorways — passers-by are invited to bring their old, unwanted books and take any which tickle their fancy. My local public bookshelf has been a source of some great discoveries — but it’s about more than just books.
One does not simply walk past a public bookshelf without stopping. I know I can’t! If we’re out on a weekend or evening stroll and we walk past one of the many shelves scattered across Vienna’s streets, I simply have to pop over and take a look. Who knows what little gems are there for the taking?
Some are classic bookshelves, fitted with Perspex doors to protect the contents from the elements. Other shelves are built into old shop window display units. I’ve even seen a couple of old British red telephone boxes that have been converted. I’ve memorised their locations and try to wangle a visit to one or two if we happen to be in the right neck of the woods.
Give and take
My favourite public bookshelf is about ten minutes’ walk from our house, next to a church in Wieden, Vienna’s 4th district. For years, it’s been my destination of choice to look for secondhand reading treasure. It’s where I’ve made my best finds. Six out of seven Harry Potters – all in mint condition! I couldn’t believe my luck that day. They all came home with me and became my lockdown reading project last March.
The fact that this public bookshelf has been so kind to me is surely the reason why I continue to take my old books there. There is an element of karma to the process. If I take books from a certain bookshelf, I have an unspoken moral obligation to put some books back there one day. Thus bringing the great karmic scales of the written word back into balance.
The public bookshelf: a reading lucky dip
“My” public bookshelf takes me on reading adventures and introduces authors to me who I would never otherwise have read. Without it, I would never have read “Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy, or picked up “Small Island” by Andrea Lévy. I might never have known the writing of Joyce Carol Oates or Jodi Picoult.
Every now and again, I strike it lucky and score a book by one of my favourite authors. Once, I saw from 100m distance that there was a Kate Atkinson to be had — I literally dived headfirst across the road to snaffle it. That book, Case Histories, was MINE – and it was one of the best books I read in 2020. A triumph (both my find and the book).
Getting to know the neighbours
Not only that — through the medium of that little wooden shelf, I feel like I’m getting to know the neighbourhood. And that in a city where people are generally quite closed off from each other. From the abundance of Hungarian books that get left there, I’m guessing there are some natives of that country living close by. Recently, someone has had what looks like a pandemic-related clean out and got rid of their (considerable) collection of erotic literature. Who was that, I wonder? (I didn’t take any.)
Inside books taken from the shelf, I’ve found plane tickets, flyers for French flea-markets, names of previous owners. Even train times to unknown destinations scribbled inside the cover. These books are like little curiosity boxes, full of clues about people’s lives, where they’ve been and what they do. Each one thoroughly quotidian, and yet a microcosm of fascination.
I also believe that there’s a fellow Brit living around there too. Someone whose reading preferences clearly tend towards compatriot authors and particularly those who write about the Second World War. I imagine that this is a male, around 60 years old. I’ve taken home a lot of his cast-offs. Maybe “he” has found enjoyment in a couple of mine aswell…?
Did you enjoy this article about my local public bookshelf? Perhaps you’ll like this article about my books of the year in 2022!
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