Train Travelers Swap Tales With South Branch Book Exchange

By Danny YadronContributing Writer

Evanston resident Kathy Poole strolled into the Metra’s Main Street station with plenty of time to spare before the 7:45 a.m. train to Chicago on Friday.

Before taking a seat in the warming room, she eyed the pile of modern fiction on the corner book shelf.

But Poole’s not scoping out the loot for the next great Evanston book robbery. Instead, she’s participating in what is becoming a very successful program for the South Branch Library.

For many commuters, the Friends of the South Branch Library’s book exchange does more to wake them up than any caffeinated beverage.

“I have a family and a small business; reading helps take your mind off of things,” said one commuter who was in a flurry to catch the 7:21 a.m. train to Chicago.

According to South Branch librarian Sally Schwarzlose, the program’s creators couldn’t hope for anything more.

The idea is to provide rush hour travelers with a variety of free reading material, she said.

Riders can take as many books as they want, with the hope that they will leave a book in return.

“It’s amazingly interactive,” said Schwarzlose, who added that readers should never leave a title on the shelf just because they don’t have one to put in its place.

On the exchange’s shelf, a dog-eared copy of Shakespeare sits between teen tearjerker “The Notebook” and an expose on the Clinton presidency. Each is marked inside with a “Friends of the South Branch” stamp.

But the top shelf is mostly devoted to installments of the “Star Trek” series and checkout line romance novels, or, as Poole called them, “really sleazy summer beach books.”

“A lot of things come in; the good ones go out,” Schwarzlose said.

But Schwazlose said the exchange was not meant to be a drop-off point for the dozens of unwanted books collecting dust in people’s homes.

Those donations should go directly to the library, not the train station.

Friends of the South Branch sees the project as an extension of the library’s continual effort to reach out to the community in the face of financial pressures, said group member Donna Gerson.

“The hope is that it will bring people into the South Branch,” Gerson said. “Because we’re small, the city usually looks to us for budget cuts.”

Schwarzlose said she is optimistic about the branch’s future.

“We’re always in trouble – (but South Branch) kind of reminds me of ‘Cheers,’ she said. “Everyone knows your name.”

The Friends of the South Branch started the book exchange to build on this sense of community.

According to commuters, it’s working.

“It’s really broadened their reach,” said Poole, who said she regularly checks the bookshelves. “I think it makes (residents) feel good about the library.”

No one could pin down an exact date when the book exchange began, but most estimated it was earlier this year.

Schwarzlose said there is a book-exchange subculture.

Patrons make donations specifically for the program, and one volunteer even checks on the bookshelf daily, she said.

The success has lead to a second post at The Brothers K Coffee House at 500 Main St. Other libraries are taking notice, as well.

“The North Branch is looking to set up a similar service for our train station,” said North Branch librarian Connie Heneghan.

Reach Danny Yadron at [email protected]