Jackson County's public libraries closed in early April, but there's still a place in Ashland where you can check out books, videos and music CDs.

Jackson County's public libraries closed in early April, but there's still a place in Ashland where you can check out books, videos and music CDs.

There's a catch, though. You don't actually check them out. You just take them with you, and bring them back when you're finished — if you want.

The free library, also known as the Ashland Media Exchange, has amassed 6,000 books in the two weeks it's been open. Founder Jeff Napier says it's already proved the premise that generosity is deeply embedded in human nature. When people take books or movies, they want to give something back for what they got, he says.

The idea admittedly takes getting used to, says Napier, noting that most people feel funny, perhaps even a little guilty, walking out with goods without paying or producing a membership card. That feeling, however, seems to inspire book donations, volunteerism and money contributions.

Of course there are bills to pay — rent, utilities, Internet fees — about $1,500 a month for the 1,000-square-foot space at 3175 E. Main St., next to Secure Storage. Napier covers those costs by culling the most valuable donated items and selling them on eBay or used book Web sites.

So far, the books have fetched an average of $11, and one, a comparative study of textiles, brought $375.

"There were probably only 10 people in the world who wanted that book," he says.

A former bookstore owner in San Rafael, Calif., Napier picked up hundreds of books at garage sales to get things started. He has since received as many as 400 donated books a day.

After being open only a few weeks, the "interim library," as his sign says, gets about 25 customers a day.

"I think we could handle about 300," he says.

Nominal hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, but patrons can call 482-8799 to see if the place is open. They're likely to find Napier busily stuffing books in mailing envelopes, posting recent donations on the Internet or assembling more bookshelves, which cost about $40 each in lumber and parts.

He's paying himself a small salary at this point, but says he's "not in this to get rich. I wanted to do something meaningful and I wanted to do it without more taxes."

Richard Miller, an Ashland book fancier who volunteered his time to shelve and organize books, says the media exchange is "revolutionary, and I believe it's going to change the world, seriously.

"It brings the community together in a way that barter hasn't done," he says. "It's going to work."

News of the free library is making its way around the Internet and Napier has received inquires from home-schooling parents and administrators of private schools who formerly sent their students to Jackson County public libraries. The libraries closed April 6 due to a budget shortfall that developed when the federal government declined to renew payments to timber-dependent counties.

Rare or valuable books won't be found on shelves, Napier says. Among the free books there are many works of popular fiction as well as nonfiction books that were published in large numbers — books that are useful, entertaining and in demand.

The AME also has a computer with Internet connections, as well as wireless Internet access. Napier says he would like to expand to a 5,000 square foot shop and add more Internet stations if book donations, volunteers and cash contributions continue apace.

If the county libraries fail to reopen, Napier hopes that one day he could add paid librarians to the staff. He knows just the right people for the jobs: 115 library employees received layoff notices when the library system announced plans to close down.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.