I was walking to lunch on a sunny spring day when I caught sight of a striking graphic: a freeform olive oval on the cover of a brand-new hardbound book. PURE COLOUR read the title in all caps. Sheila Heti was the author, a name I recognized, as I’d coincidentally just read a short story by her in The New Yorker.
Her new novel was on the ground, leaning against Skyline Chili at the corner of Clifton and Ludlow avenues. Had someone left it behind? It didn’t appear so; it had no cracked spine, thumbprints, or dog-ears. Leafing through it—a little jewel, luxurious in its thick, creamy pages and glossy dust jacket—I came across a bookmark that said, “You Found Us! Welcome to Under Cover Book Club!”
What I’d stumbled across was one of this city’s secret delights: a book placed in plain sight for an unsuspecting finder. It was one of a dozen titles placed that month, and every month, in public spots from Sharonville to Evanston to Covington. You can simply happen upon the books, or you can search for them using clues on the @UnderCover513 social media accounts. First the book titles are teased: juicy covers of (mostly) just-published fare, with details about plot and author. Later the general locations are announced, about 12 neighborhoods per “drop.” Finally, photographs of the books in situ are posted, along with latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates.
Samantha Evans is the young woman behind this literary branch of geocaching, itself a rising sport of anonymous hide-and-seek games. “I have always liked the idea of happening upon something on any given day,” says the Cheviot native, who lives in East Walnut Hills with her husband and cats. “I wanted to know I wasn’t the only one who felt that if you found a book it belonged to you.”
Evans returned to the Queen City in 2017 after grad school in Chicago and was casting about for ways to reconnect with the local community. Never mind that she was working a job and pursuing a second master’s degree (in Montessori education); she always made time for whatever book was in her handbag at the moment. “I wanted to learn more about Cincinnati,” she says, “and give myself an excuse to find more books and read and have a little fun with it.”
And what’s more fun than a scavenger hunt? At first Evans purchased the books herself and placed them in cafés, on park benches, and on Metro bus seats within a small radius of where she was working at the time downtown. As the project grew, she asked book publishers for free copies and contacted authors for interviews, which she posted on her website. Responses from the publishing world were enthusiastic.
With the assistance of volunteer “hiders,” the project grew from placing 117 titles in 2019 to almost double that last year. About three copies of each title are placed, which means somewhere close to 1,500 total books have been disseminated. The pandemic didn’t stop Evans’s benevolent book-leaving, though it temporarily halted the get-togethers she organized at coffeeshops to discuss the latest offerings.
The project is feeding an unexpected boom for book-reading. Despite the rise of digital reading and audiobooks, physical books still command the lion’s share of money spent on reading material. The pandemic, according to Publishers Weekly, led to an increase in reading time among Americans.
Like the little free libraries that pop up all over town here, Under Cover Book Club has a decidedly local flavor. The first book Evans chose to hide was Tiffany McDaniel’s award-winning debut The Summer That Melted Everything, set in a fictional town in Ohio; McDaniel hails from Circleville, south of Columbus. Not all the books have a local connection, though they’re all curated by Evans.
“I intentionally left a book by an LGBTQ+ author outside a church in Fairfield,” she says. “I thought, This could send a message that maybe wouldn’t necessarily be talked about in that space.”