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If anyone had witnessed the tortuous track I took to get to Bibliotéca Popular, a community-run library and arts space in Pilsen, it would have been impossible to mistake me for a local.  But after twenty minutes of wandering, I arrived just in time to mistakenly get credit for two boxes full of old books.

“Are all these for the swap?” a woman asks your confused correspondent.

“I’m moving, so it’s sort of an opportune time,” replies the real donor, appearing behind me with a third box, unaware of my imposture.

“Oh, that’s great. We can take them into the back room.”  Shaking off confusion, the woman turns to me, “So these boxes aren’t yours?”

No, they’re not.  But I did bring two of my own.  Books, not boxes.

All of us (and our books) gathered here for Bibliotéca’s first official book swap. The book swap is just one of many programs offered by the Bibliotéca, whose repertoire also includes tutoring sessions, film screenings, bike workshops, and open mic nights. Every first and third Thursday of the month, Bibliotéca hosts the “Books to Prisoners” program, when event organizers and Pilsen residents gather to prepare selected literature for Chicago inmates. “This place takes down so many different shapes sometimes,” says one patron proudly.

For those uninitiated into book swapping, it’s easy to pick up: bring x number of books and walk away with x number of books, with a start-up cache supplied by event organizers (or overzealous donors). The selection at Saturday’s event ranged from science-fiction authors like Philip K. Dick to German novelist Hermann Hesse to thirteenth-century Persian poet Rumi. A creative writing tutor from the neighborhood placed El Capital on the non-fiction table, and then turned to the fiction selection, finally deciding on a worn Dostoevsky paperback.

The scene was intimate and friendly–a craftsman sold his jewelry across from a small table arrangement of pita, hummus, and fruit–and the quiet furniture towards the back of the room invited patrons to sit down and flip through a book before taking it home. As I settled into a chair by the back wall, a young girl began to pick tentatively at the upright bass propped up against the couch.  I swapped out Machado de Assis for Cervantes and Donald Miller for Faulkner, and though I felt like I was coming out ahead, my old books had been picked up off the table as well.

Depending on turnout and community participation, organizers hope to make the swap a monthly fixture in Bibliotéca Popular’s event calendar.  Either way, for a Saturday afternoon, there’s a lot more going on here than at the Chicago Public Library branch two blocks up the street.