Reading for free in Madrid

The Libros Libres project is offering books for nothing in the Chamberí district

Free books on offer at Libros Libres. "You can come whether you have money or not," explains one of the promoters.
Free books on offer at Libros Libres. "You can come whether you have money or not," explains one of the promoters.

Fortunately, given these austere times, Madrid is not a city where the savvy tourist has to spend a lot of cash to have the best time. They can visit the Prado Museum for nothing (from 6pm onward, Monday to Saturday, or from 5pm onward on Sundays); take the free and (relatively) fresh air in the Retiro Park and the Casa de Campo; and even, if they know the right bars, stuff their face with free tapas, all for the price of a caña. But what about free books? That, surely, must be a step too far...

It might sound like madness, but that's exactly what Libros Libres, which has just opened its doors in the Chamberí neighborhood (Calle Covarrubias 7), is all about. It is a small and cozy space with walls lined with books where anyone can show up and pick what they want without paying a cent.

"It's a project that has been thought up with economic considerations far from our mind; you can come whether you have money or not," explains Alejandro de León, one of the promoters of the project. "We want to facilitate free access to reading material and cinema [the store also includes a videoclub]. Here the subscribers have no advantage over the non-subscribers. Those who cannot afford to pay the subscription can come just the same."

The contribution they ask for is 12 euros a year -- a euro a month -- but as they say, you don't have to pay if you can't. People can also take part by donating books -- an important part of keeping the titles flowing -- or by bringing coffee, cake or anything else tasty. They need 365 subscribers for the project to be economically viable and continue beyond its first year. And things aren't going badly -- in their first 12 days they managed to get more than 120 members.

One surprising thing is the quality of the books to be found here. Many of them were donated by foundations and publishers and are a long way from the kind of dull titles you normally encounter in bargain stores. There are books from the big publishers, a few new titles and sections devoted to children's literature, poetry and philosophy.

The project is inspired by The Book Thing of Baltimore, a huge free bookstore started in the US city by a man who collected books he rated with the intention of selling them for 50 cents apiece. But he ended up with so many he began giving them away.

The great thing is that people are getting excited about its Madrid incarnation, which has been set up by the NGO Grupo 2013 -- a group of over 100 volunteers who give classes to children with learning difficulties who are at risk from social exclusion. Many have already volunteered to work for free in the space, where you can also sit down to read on the comfy sofa or look up things on the computer. It's also the ideal spot to strike up a spontaneous literary debate, while the organizers are considering the possibility of setting up workshops or screenings.

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