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BookMooch: Book Swapping Hits Net Speed

December 3rd, 2007

By John DeFore

Living by the reduce/reuse/recycle mantra can be a challenge, a chore, a karmic satisfaction or tangible improvement in lifestyle. But it’s rarely something one participates in avidly, abook-mooch-2.jpgnticipating it eagerly while at work or singing its praises at parties.

Lately, though, I’ve been obsessed with a novel way of reducing the world’s waste — I’ve willingly lost sleep over it, in fact, thanks to an entity called BookMooch. More on it in a moment.

To the extent that recycling consumer goods has caught on in America, success is surely tied closely to simplicity: If curbside pickup comes as often as garbage collection and what goes in which bin is easy to grasp, there’s little reason for people not to participate.

But re-use — finding a second life for unwanted possessions without sending them through an industrial recycling process — is tougher, if only because no ragman comes down the street each week to take discards off our hands. In the vast middle ground between items that can be tossed in a recycling bin and those (cars, computers) that are worth taking the time to re-sell are the lamps, dishes, and clothing that linger in closets or attics, annoying us vaguely until there’s enough accumulated to justify a trip to Goodwill.

Donating goods to charity instead of sending them to a landfill is a huge step in the right direction, of course, but it isn’t as satisfying as knowing someone who wants something at the very moment we tire of it — or as rewarding as learning that that person has something you want, too, and will swap you for it.

Since the dawn of the Internet, people have tried using the Web to address this inherent desire and need to exchange our “stuff.” The net has facilitated all kinds of trade, from the classified-style Craigslist to questionably-legal vote swapping. But many efforts have fallen by the wayside: Of five barter sites mentioned in a 2000 article that still ranks high in Google searches, none continue to exist in their original form. It turns out there are plenty of obstacles to anonymous, free-floating barter.

One problem is determining what things are of equal value to both parties, which is why most sites that have flourished limit what sort of goods they deal with. Some anything-goes sites do exist, like U-Exchange, which currently boasts 27,000 members in a hundred countries, but they tend to be like gigantic versions of the classified section — places you visit infrequently, with a specific transaction in mind, and must dig through (often unsuccessfully) to find the person whose needs match yours. Not really something to integrate into your daily reuse/recycle routine.

One way to simplify matters is to limit trading to certain kinds of goods. The well-received Zunafish, for example, allows you to trade a book for a book, a CD for a CD, a game for a game. But it can take a while before you find a member who wants your old copy of Sting’s “Ten Summoner’s Tales” and also happens to have a disc you’re dying to hear.

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