The 5 Best Places to Leave Books Behind

Woman leaving a book behind

In 2005, my friend Amy Krouse Rosenthal published her quirky memoir Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. In order to get word out about the book, she asked her friends, including me, to leave copies in unexpected places for people to find. I was in charge of leaving five, and quickly discovered I could have happily done more. There was something so fun about leaving a book in a free newspaper box, or in a locker at the gym (where I spied a woman pick it up but didn’t stay around to see what happened next). Inspired by the joy I had leaving books for strangers, and the places I’ve either benefited from left-behind books or just wished I had, here are some great places to leave your books for their next reader:

An Airport Lounge
Packing reading material for a flight can be a delicate operation (assuming you’re not using an ereader). Bring too much to read, and you’re hauling extra pounds around unnecessarily. But if your plane’s delayed, you may blow through what you brought and be left with bupkus for the plane. If you happen to finish a piece of reading material in an airport terminal, consider leaving it behind on an empty seat.

A Hotel, B&B, or Vacation Home
My husband and I stayed in adorable B&B in Vermont a few years ago, where I learned that there’s not very much to do in Vermont. Thank goodness someone left behind a copy of 834 Kitchen Quick Tips, because it got me through those lovely, boring days. It’s not exactly a book with a great plot, but I loved learning tricks like how to chop nuts neatly so much so that I bought a copy for myself and one for my mom the following Christmas. So the next time you’re in a hotel, especially a small one, and finish a book, ask if there’s an in-house library you can contribute to—you never know if a future guest is going to be up boredom creek without a book.

Outside an Elevator
As someone who writes about books, I receive a healthy amount of advance review copies in the mail. However, I don’t have control over what I receive, which is why for a period of years I built up a small stash of erotica thanks to a friend who runs a small and sexy publishing house. I won’t go into specifics, but the type of erotica wasn’t quite my cup of tea, so the books sat untouched. At the time, I was living in a high rise that had its own small library, cultivated by a couple of 200-year-old women. When it came time to move, I donated the books I didn’t want to the library—except the erotica (why did I care what those old women thought of me? I have no idea). It seemed like a shame, though, to toss the books. So what I did was gather them up, enter the elevator, and punch a button at random. When I got out, I put the books on a stool outside the elevator and dashed back to my apartment. If the books didn’t go to a grateful reader in need of a little spice that night, at least they gave someone a story to tell. I highly recommend trying this one.

Doctor’s  Waiting Room
I visit a doctor’s office where the waiting room is the most boring place on earth. There is no reading material available, aside from pamphlets advertising the very hospital I’m currently attending, and there’s no WiFi, either, so I can forget perusing my phone for anything interesting. The only option is to bring reading material, which, happily, I frequently have—but not always! If you happen to finish a book while at the doctor’s office, unless it’s a beloved keepsake or a library loaner, be a pal and leave it behind in the waiting room. Someone will be desperately happy to receive it while they wait in vain for a nurse to call their name.

Prison
In November, Amy Tan fantasized about being in prison so that she could catch up on her reading. Those who are actually in jail probably don’t see it as the excellent reading opportunity that she does, perhaps because a) they’re in jail and b) they don’t get to read whatever they want. You can help with the second problem. The next time you’re itching to offload some books, consider the people who might be able to use the imaginary escape more than anyone else, and Google prison book donation programs. Different programs have different requirements (I donated to Chicago Books to Women in Prison, which does not accept hardcover books), so check before you donate. Your donation can make a big difference to a person who doesn’t have the freedom to put down the book and go elsewhere.

Have you ever left a book behind—or been the beneficiary of someone who has?

  • Bob Becker

    Local hospital has a take one or leave one policy for books. It puts a little sticky tag on books patients or visitors leave inviting people to take them and to drop another off, and leaves them around the many many waiting rooms in the hospital.

  • SusanBM

    I always travel with books I don’t plan to keep. I have left them in airports, ships, hotel rooms, passed on to fellow travelers, etc. I have gotten fresh books in the same manner. Guess it is breaking even on any investment.

  • KrisD

    I used to leave them in the sitting areas and laundry rooms of the low
    income apartment complexes when I did Home Health Care. Magazines too
    once I took my name and address off the cover. Some of the elderly and
    disabled couldnt afford luxuries like that. :( Recycle, reuse and
    repurpose!