Margret Aldich writes about how the “take a book, return a book” boxes are catching in even on places where Kindles and brick-and-mortar books abound.
In 2009, Tod Bol built the first Little Free Library in the Mississippi River town of Hudson, Wisconsin, as a tribute to his mother—a dedicated reader and former schoolteacher. When he saw the people of his community gathering around it like a neighborhood water cooler, exchanging conversation as well as books, he knew he wanted to take his simple idea farther.
Since then, his idea has become a full-fledged movement, spreading from state to state and country to country.
“Little Free Libraries create neighborhood heroes,” says Bol. “That’s a big part of why it’s succeeding.”
Though they owe their spread largely to the Internet, Little Free Libraries often serve as an antidote to a world of Kindle downloads and data-driven algorithms. The little wooden boxes are refreshingly physical—and human. When you open the door, serendipity (and your neighbors’ taste) dictates what you’ll find. The selection of 20 or so books could contain a Russian novel, a motorcycle repair manual, a Scandinavian cookbook, or a field guide to birds.
For many people—particularly in more affluent areas where libraries abound—this sense of discovery is an LFL’s main appeal. A girl walking home from school might pick up a graphic novel that gets her excited about reading; a man on his way to the bus stop might find a volume of poetry that changes his outlook on life. Every book is a potential source of inspiration.
“I think it warms peoples’ hearts that a stranger would go through the trouble to leave a gift for passersby,” says Suzanne Pettypiece, steward of a Brooklyn Little Free Library—the first one in New York. “And everyone knows books are magical, so when you build a little house for them and say, ‘Hey, take one of these, because we think you’ll like it’—well, that’s kind of exciting.”
After all, no matter how closely a computer studies your search habits, its algorithms will never have the charm and mystique of a simple wooden box filled with a neighbor’s literary treasures. It won’t be able to lend you a cup of sugar either.