In the middle of a gray January drizzle, on a soggy Tacoma patch of grass, stands something that would make any determined walker push back his or her rain-soaked hood for a double-take: a bookshelf. With books. On the sidewalk. Free for the taking.
Or in this case, borrowing, because these bookshelves aren’t the ordinary kind. They’re tiny, homemade weather-proof boxes filled with books for the community to share. They’re called Little Free Libraries, an idea founded in Wisconsin and now a worldwide phenomenon, with four right here in Tacoma.
“We’ve already had five or six people stopping by – and somebody’s been taking the books,” said Craig Rounds, who just set up a Little Free Library outside his North Oakes Street home a week ago. “It’s fun.”
Sharing books, taking books and having fun is one of the main goals of the Little Free Library idea. Begun in Hudson, Wis., in 2009 as one man’s quirky tribute to his book-loving mother, the LFL concept became a partnership, a website and then a global movement. Founders Todd Bols and Rick Brooks are now at the head of a nonprofit organization that makes enough money to give them paychecks, attracts hefty grants and supports library projects around the world. Their original goal was to inspire more libraries than Andrew Carnegie had built. With more than 3,000 at last count, they’ve more than achieved it.
The idea is simple: build a box – anything from birdhouse to playhouse size – put in shelves, make it weatherproof, stick it in your front yard and stock it with books. Then stand back and watch the neighborhood come by to borrow, return and donate their own.
“Lots of people use it,” said Heidi Hutchison, who installed an LFL last summer with her husband, Andrew, at their home on North 10th Street. “The neighborhood kids are really excited, even the high school kids at Wilson.”
Inspired by family visits to Wisconsin, where the LFL movement has hatched hundreds of these box-size libraries, the Hutchisons downloaded plans from the LFL website, adding their own gingerbread touches to a sky-blue gabled box that looks straight out of “Hansel and Gretel.” A glass front clearly shows the books, which are mostly adult and children’s classics, donated by Heidi and her book-club friends.
Occasionally ,she’s had to edit – “I tossed a couple of trashy romances and a Book of Mormon,” she admitted – but mostly the library looks after itself, with no vandalism and a hedge to help protect it from the weather. Andrew’s even thinking of adding a second level for more books.
Bols and Brooks sell LFL kits on their website, and they do charge $25 a year to have libraries listed on their Google map. But there’s nothing stopping you from building your own library. Folks have made them from fruit boxes, old microwaves, storm debris, even a canoe. Rounds made his from an old bed headboard and cupboard front, with his family pitching in to collage the outside with magazine pictures and text cut-outs to indicate the library’s contents of kids’ fantasy, sci-fi, military and home and garden books. He also knocked on all the neighbors’ doors with flyers about the project, asking them to help keep an eye out to protect the library.
Up on West Road beside the North Tacoma gulch, Bob Jones has a Little Free Library he built six weeks ago from a repurposed bathroom cabinet. With sloping sides and honey-colored wood, it has a cabin feel.
Down near South 19th Street, at the back of a bubble gum-blue garage on the alleyway between Oakes and Anderson streets, LFL owner R.R. Anderson has built shelves under the garage eaves, covering them with clear plastic sheets and expanding the offerings with videos and a USB port for e-books. (He also asks for a 25-cent donation, which isn’t quite the original free concept.)
However the books are housed, the result of Little Free Libraries has been to draw communities together around the love of books. Both Hutchison and Rounds said they’ve met many more neighbors because of the project, and the little notebook in the LFL box on Tacoma’s West Road is full of grateful handwriting: “What a great thing, thank you. I’ll bring back what I’ve read,” signs “a Proctor walker.” Another note reads “Thank you. I’ll read them to my granddaughter.”
“I like the idea of sharing what I have,” Rounds said. “I don’t need to read my books 17 times. I’d rather people read them rather than just giving them to a thrift store. It gives another something for a community to get together around.”
And in an age where more people than ever drive rather than walk, and think reading is something you do on a screen, Little Free Libraries are proving that books — especially free ones from somebody else — have all the magic they ever did.
“It does unite the neighborhood, in little ways,” Hutchison said. “I just like books, and I want to share them.”
Find a Little Free Library
4617 N. 10th St., Tacoma (between Stevens and Orchard Streets). Adult and kid classics.
1702 N. Oakes St., Tacoma. A mixture of kids’ fantasy and adventure, sci-fi, home and garden, military and general.
91 West Road, Tacoma. Small range of adult fiction, some kids’ books.
Alley between South Anderson and South Oakes, between South 17th and 19th streets, Tacoma (back of blue garage). Wide range of classics, nonfiction, fiction, videos and ebooks.
At all LFLs, feel free to take or donate books. Please respect the box and protect the books from the weather. Find more libraries around the world at littlefreelibrary.org, as well as instructions on how to make your own.Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/arts