Little Stories from a Little Library

Jun 9, 2017

Hannah at the Little Library
Credit Monica Tetzlaff

Finally, school is out, and it’s pleasure-reading season!  We’re celebrating at our house by launching a Little Free Library in our front yard. Like an excellent book, our experience has already held suspense, plot twists, and even inspired some tough self-reflection.

The concept of Little Libraries is simple. People set up small shelters in communities where anyone can take a book or leave a book. They often look like bloated breadboxes on a post, with a windowed door to reveal book titles. But sometimes the library stewards re-purpose cabinets, old newspaper boxes, or, in the case of a hippie-holdover family in my hometown, a recycled 1960s turquoise refrigerator painted with daisies and the phrase, “Books are Food for Thought.” 

We opted for a simple kit, designed by an Amish woodworker, and got coaching in using “quikrete” to sink the post in our front yard from our handy neighbor, Michael.

But the first stocking of the library, which I’d so looked forward to, suddenly felt … loaded. We’d planned to offer books for all ages, aiming for diverse authorial voices. That’s a challenge on one little shelf. And, of course, the point is also for the library to be a hub for exchanges between passers-by, allowing for serendipity.  Right away, we got a sweet lesson in letting go, as we watched a middle-school neighbor on one side of us tuck some outgrown early-chapter books onto the shelf. Almost immediately, the younger readers on the other side of us dashed out — barefoot and wincing on winter-tender feet —  thrilled to grab them up.  That’s a perfect literary ecosystem.  The mother of the younger readers sent me a text an hour later, with an heart-melting photo of the boys toe-to-toe on their couch, blissfully buried in their books.  

I’m often in our front-yard, gardening, so I’ve had to decide whether or not to butt in when folks linger by the library window. I try not to, but it’s hard when, like Dolly Levi, I’m always sure there’s a perfect match for every patron.  For a friend who was about to fly to France, I couldn’t stop myself from pressing into her hands a book I’d loved, A.J. Liebling’s  Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris.

We’ve also served up books that people are plainly hungry for, now.  Four copies of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, were grabbed up over just three days.  Many copies of historian Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century have flown off the shelf.  So has Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s compact but powerful call to action, We Should All be Feminists. 

Obviously, we’ve got a bit of an agenda going here. And I’m pondering the fine line between curating and censorship, since other folks have agendas, too.  I confess to removing religious tracts. And if folks leave books I really don’t approve of, I have to consult my conscience — am I depriving another reader? Do I care?  I’m reminded of the social media phenomenon of posting “shelfies” — photos of a person’s bookshelves —  that are more revealing than most selfies.  If our library’s “shelfie” is a snapshot of our neighborhood, it’s not exactly unretouched.

Most often, though, I’m delighted by the donations, as if other anonymous Dolly Levis know just what I need, too.  I took it as a sign from the universe that I really must read the novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, when, after years of people recommending it, it appeared on the shelf.  I’ve been thrilled by donations of history books, Spanish language crosswords, a copy of Blue Highways, and picture books like Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, which move so fast that someone’s bedtime routine must have needed a shakeup.

There are detractors of little libraries — people who argue they are just tools for middle-class self-aggrandizement, or that they serve as dumping grounds for trashed and trashy paperbacks. But the quick and creative action on our one little shelf, so far, confirms what research has found about the “social capital” that builds when neighbors have a reason to slow down and interact. In this case, books are the reason to pause, to foster exchanges that go beyond personal experience into the risk-taking world of reading and ideas. 

We’ve included a visitor’s book on our shelf, with a quotation from Margaret Atwood’s poem, “Spelling”:  “ A word after a word after a word is power.”  Repeat it as an incantation, dear readers. It’s intended to summon you.