A SHOP giving away everything for free. There must be a catch, right?

Could it be a weird cult trying to lure you in or the items are called free, but you have to pay a hefty ‘donation’?

No – there is no catch.

And you can see for yourself at Books for Free on Southampton High Street.

The ‘shop’ is run by a team of volunteers and the books are donated.

It is part of a national network of free ‘shops’ across the country, run by charity Healthy Planet.

The main aim is to keep the items – in this case books – out of landfill or from being pulped by ‘rescuing’ them and finding new homes for them.

Cara Sandys from Southampton, who is behind the city centre shop, explains that it’s an example of a win-win-win situation for everyone.

The ‘shops’ open in empty premises – of which there are more and more on our high streets.

“The landlords cover overheads such as electricity while still making a saving on their rates due to having the charity in the shop,”

she explains.

“The council are happy because there’s one less unoccupied shop. The volunteers are happy because we get a community space for free and the customers are happy because they get books for nothing.”

Cara adds that as well as the benefit of reducing the amount of rubbish being produced by removing items such as books, records, CDs, DVDs and videos from the waste stream, she also enjoys the fact that Books for Free operates outside of the normal economy.

“I’m interested in the economic revolution and the fact that we are able to offer a ‘shop’ that’s giving things away for free. It’s not about profit. It’s about generosity and community as well as the issue of saving resources from going to landfill.”

The books themselves come from unsellable stock. Charity shops sometimes throw items they can’t sell straight in the bin, but others sell them to a commercial bookseller. The bookseller will then sell what they can and the remaining books are donated to Healthy Planet.

Healthy Planet distribute these on a pallet of around 1,000 books at a time to Books for Free shops.

Cara first came across Healthy Planet last year when they were giving away free books in the Swan Centre in Eastleigh. She got talking to the organisers, who offered her a pallet of books to give away. An environmental activist, Cara, who is a selfemployed jewellery-maker, took them up on the offer.

“My garage was empty because I don’t have a car so it was filled with books, which I took to various community events in a shopping trolley! When they told me about the possibility of setting up in commercial premises I thought it would be a fantastic idea.”

The Southampton ‘shop’ opened on October 1.

Since then they have given away around 5,000 books, as well as records, CDs, DVDs and videos.

Customers are restricted to three books per day. There is a donation pot should they wish to contribute but there is no expectation that people will and Cara says that the volunteers don’t pay any attention to whether or not a donation is made.

Cara admits that she was concerned that people would abuse the system, but while the taken advantage.

In the light of the recession and people’s growing disillusionment with the current economic system – seeing company bosses getting huge bonuses while more and more people are facing unemployment – it seems that there is a growing interest in models like Books for Free.

It is a more visible model of organisations, trading without money that currently exist on the Internet.

Websites such as the hugely popular Freecycle allow people to give away/collect unwanted goods – anything from a sofa to some unwanted cans of paint – for free and there are a number of skillswap sites, such as Freeconomy, on which people offer to do things for other people in the group, from plumbing to proofreading.

But Cara believes that Books for Free and other free ‘shops’ are even better.

“Freecycle is one of the most visited websites in the whole world and obviously that’s saving an enormous amount of stuff from going to landfill by being passed on for free through the Internet. As good as that is, I’d love to see the idea come to the high street because it challenges ideas about consumerism and creates a better atmosphere because you’ve got an occupied space and you’re offering something to the community that isn’t about making money.”

The shop itself is in what Cara calls Southampton’s Counter Cultural Quarter, being near to the Bargate Monument Gallery, the SoCo music project and other arts projects, and it certainly breathes more life into the area than another empty shopping unit. It has also been used as a space for community groups and events – and more are planned.

The recent anti-capitalism protests have highlighted the fact that some people want to see an alternative economic model to the current system.

But Cara believes that while protesting may raise awareness it doesn’t necessarily have any actual benefits.

Her personal motto is ‘just do it’ and she was drawn to Books for Free’s strong practical element and the fact that it means you’re not just ‘preaching to the converted’.

“I think something like this is a really practical response to the core problem of companies making huge profits and wealth not being distributed equally. Something like this addresses some of those issues on a very simple, down to earth level. Perhaps if, rather than setting up tents, the protesters opened up Books for Free shops they would be achieving more in terms of getting their message out there.”

She adds: “For anyone involved in the environmental movement, you are talking to the same people all the time.

You put on an event and the usual suspects turn up.

Because this shop is in an area of such high footfall you get every age, nationality and walk of life coming in. It's lovely to be able to offer this to anyone going past.

“Maybe there will be a knock-on effect and people will think more about recycling and waste issues, as well as taking a book.”

She adds that bookshops don’t have anything to fear from Books for Free.

“You can’t come in here and pick up something specific that you're looking for. You have to go to a book shop for that. The attraction of something like this is you see what you can find.”

And Cara firmly believes that there is going to be more and more demand for ‘shops’ like the one she is running.

“You could have free shops for furniture or children’s clothes,” she says.

“It's part of a movement called ‘collaborative consumption’ which is about sharing, swapping and bartering. It’s a different form of trading but in these economically stretched times, I think it’s the way to go."

Books for Free is at 170 High Street, Southampton (opposite East Street). For more information, if you would like to volunteer or if you are an individual, charity shop or book seller who would like to donate books, email csandys@hotmail.com. You can also find Books for Free on Facebook under Books for Free Southampton.

Books for free is normally open daily, 10am-4pm, depending on availability of volunteers. It may open later some days due to lack of volunteers.