Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

My Little Free Library: #16,408

By Liz Stewart

The Barber Neighborhood little free library stands just over five feet tall, a boxy, wooden cabinet with two plexiglass doors, supported by three posts. The bottom shelf is thirty-five inches off the ground. It sits in a shady spot right next to the sidewalk in my front yard and holds about forty adult and a dozen or so bound children’s books. As the steward of this book exchange, I am still figuring out what kinds of books people want. Many of us have books we’ll never read again (not to mention ones we just haven’t got around to reading) so sharing or trading enriches us all—without spending too much. And it feels good!

I don’t remember when I first heard about the little free library movement, but an article in the Chico Enterprise-Record in the spring of 2013 made me eager to have one. Readers have long shared books in churches, cafes and community spaces, but this latest idea took hold in 2009 when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, built one to honor his mother. She had been a teacher and loved to read. It was a hit with his neighbors. He built another, gave it away, then built several more and gave them away, too.

My daughter and I talked often about them, but neither of us had seen one, except online. When I visited her last fall in Bexley, Ohio, she was working to install two of them there. She approached the Police Chief and he wanted one in the station. The Mayor was excited about it, too.

Emmy and I were driving down a quiet street in a nearby suburb when she spotted one and we jumped out of the car to photograph it. It was lovely, crafted in wood by a person with heart and experience. Right next to it was a child-sized bench. We hoped that someone was home and knocked on the front door. In case the owners didn’t want to talk with out-of-towners, I planned to say: “I’ve come all the way from Chico to see your library!” That’s when we learned that keepers of these little book exchanges love to talk about them. This beauty turned out to be one of the first in the state. He said they’d never had a problem although occasionally there had been “drive-by bookings” when bags and boxes full of donations were left on their porch. His wife is a librarian and very particular about the quality and condition of the books, especially those for children.

What kid doesn't love a library?

What kid doesn’t love a library?

Up the Road photos by Sarah Bohannon

Up the Road photos by Sarah Bohannon

Back in Chico I found that there were at least five Little Free Libraries. I visited them all, meeting their owners, soaking up their enthusiasm and picking up hints on how to proceed. Tom and Mady, on Autumnwood, helped me with ideas for design and hinges and also to have faith in good neighbors. Trish, on Sunset, began with an about-to-be discarded record cabinet and now has one identical to mine, a “sister” library. She showed me how she organizes her book selection and where to find inexpensive children’s books. I loved her artist’s eye for decoration. Larry, on Skylark, built two of them—one just for children, which makes a lot of sense. Rachel and her husband, both teachers, have a heavily-used one on Palmetto. They are very knowledgeable about which authors/genres their neighbors like.

Liz Stewart at first thought her library should resemble the neighborhood’s Oakdale Elementary School, shown here circa 1969. “Enter to Learn” was inscribed over the entrance. (photo courtesy Chico Unified School District)

I live in the Barber Neighborhood that was developed after Diamond Match Company set up business in the early 1900s. Initially, I thought the bookcase/book house could reflect the history of our area, so I toyed with the idea of asking someone to design one that looked liked the old Oakdale Elementary School—a one-story Art Deco building that stood on the corner of 11th & Broadway and was designed by local architects Cole and Brouchoud. “Enter to Learn” was inscribed over the door. More practical, though, turned out to be the one next to the Has Beans coffee shop on Humboldt, sponsored by the County Library. The added height allows for tall children’s books.

It was important to me to have mine built by someone in our neighborhood. Luckily, Bob, who lives down the street, loved the idea; he agreed to help me out. It is his wonderful design and he built two of them. At first I thought that my house was too out-of-the-way, being practically at the end of Broadway, but I decided I wanted it close by.

The Butte County Library Outreach Coordinator, Oliver, encouraged CARD to install several in our parks, and that plan is going forward, but in the meantime, school was out and I was eager to have one up and running before my grandkids arrived this July. After all, my daughter by now had succeeded in having TWO little libraries installed! Bob was very busy but had the know-how to build it. I painted the walls and roof with four shades of leftover latex and a few ounces of automotive paint (as recommended by Henry Petroski in The Book on the Bookshelf) on the actual shelf so books would slide easily in and out. I not-quite dug three postholes, and my neighbor, Bruce, agreed to install it. He sank
the posts, screwed hinges on the doors and hung the “little freel ibrary” sign (made from old barn siding). It was in the ground and open for users with two days to spare!

I leave post-it notes inside and a few borrowers have written messages. One of my favorites so far was written by a six-year-old named Rosalind: “I Lic the Libraare.” Her mother said she feels so grown-up, being allowed to visit it all by herself. Another person wrote: “Does anyone have any manga-Japanese graphic books?” Other comments: “I want a book from the Warrior series”; “Do you have any stories about young spies?”; “How about some books about sailing?”; “Anyone have some by Terry Pratchett?” And the best: “I want to thank you for the little library. I was having a bad morning and this really helped.”

It’s impossible to walk outside without wanting to check out what’s happening, and which books are moving. At least once a week I bring all the adult books inside and replace them with “new” books. I leave children’s books there longer. Donations arrive all the time and I try to stamp all with “Little Free Library-Barber Neighborhood,” just to see how far they travel. One borrower said she and her daughter placed one or two books in Santa Barbara, and they now look for others around the state.

Reflecting on the neighborliness of this project reminds me that others helped and that there will soon be a second little library near here. Hilary, a nearby neighbor, recruited Dan, her next-door neighbor, to get the Chico State Music & Theatre Department involved. They have built one with Walter’s “as-built” plans that will soon be installed at Rotary Park. Its opening-day collection will include copies of Chico State’s Book in Common from this year and several years past.

Liz Stewart (far right) with Barber Neighborhood Little Free Library patrons (back row, left to right) Shyama Vohra, Reena Schaller, and YaLing Barker (front row) Mason Barker and Shubhansh Vohra Tandon. Photo by Sarah Bohannon

Liz Stewart (far right) shown enjoying a good reading day with Barber Neighborhood Little Free Library patrons (back row, left to right) Shyama Vohra, Reena Schaller, YaLing Barker and (front row) Mason Barker and Shubhansh Vohra Tandon. (Up the Road photo by Sarah Bohannon)

I now have a new purpose: get to know more people in my neighborhood, learn a bit about who they are and how long they’ve lived here. One woman told me she had recently moved here from Madison, Wisconsin, where these little free libraries are practically on every block—and she missed them!

I would encourage anyone who wishes they had a little library in front of their own house to go right ahead and build one. There’s room for all and you can be sure that there will be no two collections just alike.


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