Saturday, November 21, 2009

Random thoughts on Bookmooch….

“Bookmooch” – -- is a world-wide book-trade website that’s proving especially beneficial to those of us in far-flung countries for whom finding and buying English-language books isn’t easy. ‘Bookmooch’ helps – and if nothing else, it’s fun.

The ‘Bookmooch’ principle is simple: you give away – permanently – some book you no longer want, and in exchange, you can select a book you do want, from (theoretically) any one of the thousands of other people who have listed books they’re willing to give away. There’s no money involved – it’s an even trade, exchanging one book for another.

I say “theoretically” because of course the trade involves mailing the books, more specifically paying to mail the books, so not everyone wants to trade internationally. In the US, people who want to trade books have the more powerful option of where the trade options are much richer – simply because of the vast number of English language books available.

Nevertheless, with Bookmooch, there’s a good selection of books available to Israeli readers -- and a surprising number of people around the world who don’t mind mailing to Israel at all.

That was the first thing that struck me: I expected to find some level of anti-Israel sentiment out there, that I’d find people who’d refuse to mail to Israel on principle. Among the vast hordes of members around the world, there probably are some of those out there – if nothing else, there are books available for trade in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan. I’d be perfectly delighted to mail a book to anyone in those countries, but I have a feeling that sentiment might not universally be reciprocated.

On the contrary, what I have found is that people seem not only willing to mail to Israel, but positively interested in book exchanges with us here. I mailed a copy of a Holocaust memoir to someone in Boulder, Colorado, and he emailed back that it was especially fun to get that book from Israel.

I, on the other hand, “mooched” a Donna Leon book from a delightful lady in Venice, Italy. Because Leon’s books are set in Venice, I thought that was interesting – we actually had a nice email conversation about how accurate the setting is (very accurate, she says) and we compared notes on which among the Donna Leon books we liked the best. Those kinds of exchanges make it interesting.

Maybe it’s that book lovers are generally a nice group of people, always and forever interested in talking about books.

All that said, I have run into some situations that gave me pause.

For example:

There’s a woman in California who says in her opening listing that she will mail books all over the world. But when you go to her personal page, she says “all over the world” means that she will mail to the US and Canada only. That’s an interesting world view.

The interaction at the local post office branch on Palmach (for you Beershevites) ranges from utterly fascinating to downright frustrating. If nothing else, it demonstrates that it’s not only California schools that are woefully inadequate. For example, one postal clerk insisted that “Australia” was in Europe, but she wasn’t able to find it on her list of European countries. Had I misspelled it? Ah, no, I didn’t. But I’m not surprised she couldn’t find it there.

Same clerk, different day: “We have no listing for a country called Spain.” Was I sure it existed? Was it an island, maybe?

After one such day, after I’d mailed off books to France, New Zealand, Canada and Scotland, I walked away with no conviction whatever that any of them would arrive.

That time the clerk – different clerk, same post office – seemed totally befuddled about where any of these places were, but finally came up with what seemed to be a random number to charge me, and took my money. Someone, somewhere along the package-shipping line must have intervened, because indeed, all the books arrived at the intended destinations. Whew.

Still, that experience left me with too many doubts, so now I take all books to the Hadassah post office branch, which is just a slightly longer walk. The Hadassah branch is bigger, and the clerks there never bat an eye at where my packages are going. Not only that, but that branch has actually become efficient. Go in there, and you can take a number for the specific function you want to accomplish: sending or receiving a package, paying bills, changing currency, or a couple of other options.

What a brilliant idea. In the Palmach branch, it’s very easy to get stuck behind a line of Beduin doing something complicated with their checking accounts, and each one of them can take up to a half hour to do whatever it is they’re doing. At the Hadassah branch, where I’m in line only behind people who are also mailing things off, I’ve never had to wait more than a few minutes. I’ve finally found the longer shorter way to mail books.

There’s a steady group of us within Israel who mooch books from each other, too, and actually that’s even more fun than the more far flung countries. Especially on more remote kibbutzim, there are people who have ‘mooched’ hundreds of books, and sent off just as many. They’re very nice people, very friendly, and now, when I see their names on other email lists for something else entirely, I feel like I know them – even though I don’t.

Bookmooch also serves as an informal news service – one lady in the Philippines noted that she had to suspend her account because none of the post offices near her were open. They’d been inundated by the flood.

In her original listing, she’d noted that she mailed books off “by surface mail” –‘surface’ of the sea, presumably – and that moochers should be aware that it might take four to six months for the book they wanted to arrive. Well, there aren’t many old books I’m willing to wait that long for, anyway. It doesn’t sound like a viable option in the best of times.

I can’t get all the books I want through Bookmooch, but I can get quite a few – and it never fails to be interesting. Check it out.

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