Book exchange encourages reading on the rails


November 16, 1992

Jack Woodall picked up "The Dream Train" for a trip downtown Friday afternoon, but two hours later the hardcover book was back on the shelf at the Milford Mill Metro Station.

What he thought would be a good read about trains turned into a fanciful romance set aboard the Orient Express.

"It wasn't that good ---- a woman's book," says Mr. Woodall, a retired salesman who takes the Metro two or three times a week.

But while "The Dream Train" got a thumbs down, Mr. Woodall and his fellow Metro commuters gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up this week to the new book exchange at the Metro station in Pikesville.

The exchange, which was officially opened Thursday, offers commuters a chance to pick up a paperback, hardcover or perhaps a magazine to read on the subway. It is run entirely by volunteers and on an honor system. Commuters are expected to return the reading matter and encouraged to donate books as well.

It is really nothing more than a blue metal bookshelf bolted against the wall and a sign announcing its presence. And that is the beauty of it: no cost, no maintenance, but a big benefit to the commuting public.

"I think it's a great idea," Marcia Rogers, a secretary headed home to Pikesville, says after browsing briefly. "I'd like to see some non-fiction. Maybe I ought to contribute and other people will see the light."

Granted, the first week's donations have produced three dozen or so books that lean heavily on romance. "Wings of Desire," "Captive Passions," and "This Living Torment" were among the paperback selections.

But then, hey, the collection wasn't meant to replace the Baltimore County Public Library.

Marci and Julian Klaff came up with the idea. They've provided many of the books so far and plan to visit regularly to keep things neat and tidy.

"I've been put onto some great authors by other people I see on the subway," says Mrs. Klaff, a legal secretary and daily commuter. "I carry books around to give people sometimes. We just wanted a place to leave the books so it would be easier to exchange them."

Mass Transit Administration officials are excited about the idea. If it's successful, they're willing to install bookshelves at other Metro stops.

What Intrepid Commuter likes most of all is the image of commuters helping out fellow commuters on a purely volunteer basis. The city that reads could become the subway that reads.

"It's one of the most unique ideas we've come across," says MTA Administrator Ronald J. Hartman. "The Klaffs deserve all the credit."

Measuring up

Edward G. Stein thinks metric and thanks to his efforts, you'll one day be thinking metric, too.

The Beltway's Interstate 70 exit isn't one mile ahead, it's 1.6 kilometers. A lane isn't 12 feet wide, it's closer to 2.6 meters, give or take an inch.

Oops, make that give or take 25.4 millimeters.

If you hate Maryland's 55 mile-per-hour speed limit, here's some good news: it's going to become 88.49. Kilometers per hour, that is.

A 1988 federal law calls for government, including federally funded highway projects, to change to metric units of measurement by October 1996. Road signs will have to give distances and speeds in metric terms -- although the specifics and timing of such a conversion haven't yet been worked out by the Federal Highway Administration.

Part of Mr. Stein's job as assistant to the chief engineer at the State Highway Administration is to prepare for metrication. His first step: change all the rulers, the computers and the survey equipment since even the plans and designs for roads will have to use metric.

"I think in the beginning, it's going to be tough," Mr. Stein says. "As more people become accustomed, it's going to be easier. It's a matter of getting past the initial shock."

It's not exactly a new effort. The Congress passed a law in 1975 aimed at voluntary metrication, but the idea fizzled.

That has left the United States and Liberia the only countries that haven't adopted the metric system. The driving force behind this latest U.S. effort is really economics: our non-metric measurements hurt us in the export market.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has indicated it's serious about converting road signs to metric. Will they all be changed at once? Will they have dual numbers? Will states choose to convert roads that don't get federal funds?

None of those decisions have been made yet. But you know government: give them 25 millimeters and they'll take 1.6 kilometers.

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