If there’s one store I miss going into lately (due to the pandemic restrictions), it would be the city’s Barnes & Noble bookstore. I love books, love magazines, love reading. Checking out an eight-foot section of current best-sellers at Walmart doesn’t quite compare, and while Amazon exceeds the range and breadth of selection a 20 000 square foot brick-and-mortar outlet can provide, it lacks the ambience. It lacks the tactile experience. It lacks $3 cups of coffee! And of course, it doesn’t generally provide the great level of surprise that I get when I go in to a store and see something I’d never heard of on the shelves but can’t live without anymore. I’d wager that about half all the books I’ve bought in the past five years have been ones I’d not heard of and wasn’t looking for until I saw them in the store, started reading the slipcover and was hooked.
Anyway, I’ve been reading a bit more than usual during these times, as I hope many of you have been too. The book I’m just about finished right now is My Squirrel Days by actress Ellie Kemper. Many of you would know her from her role as Erin in The Office, but as an infrequent viewer of that (I liked the limited British series that was adapted for the U.S., back in the day, but somehow never really got into the Steve Carell version) I just knew her name a little and non-specifically, and thought “hey, a redhead and a squirrel on the cover. It doesn’t get much better than that!”
And it is quite good, although not Pulitzer Prize good nor fall on the floor laughing funny. It’s witty at times and a good-natured little memoir of a B-list actress who seems likable enough. But that’s not the point of this. The point is, I was able to pick it up for free. And it doesn’t get much better than that! Frankly, it’s not something I would have bought even if discounted from the $26 cover price, but that’s where today’s topic comes in – Little Free Libraries. I picked it up on a whim at a neighborhood one of those while dropping off a book or two I was done with that might brighten or enlighten someone else’s day.
If you’re not familiar with Little Free Libraries, maybe you should be. The “libraries” are little depositories of books that typically volunteers have on their lawns. The idea is simple. They put up what looks like a large mailbox outside their place. Many go to great lengths to creatively decorate theirs, but even if it’s just a plain wooden box, it still serves the same purpose. People who have books they don’t want or have room for anymore drop them off in them. At the same time, anyone can stop at it and help themselves to a book or two if they want. Like one of those “leave a penny, take a penny” trays at a checkout, only for books. And occasionally magazines or movies as well, I find. Since I started noticing around them in my adopted city a few years ago, I’ve come to visit them fairly regularly, dropping off books I figure more likely to gain dust than my renewed attention in the next few years, and picking up a number of ones I’ve read.
The non-profit that runs the service won a World Literacy Award this year and estimate they have around 100 000 little libraries around the world. I’m aware of six or seven around my county, and doubtless there are quite a few more…and some near you too.
Now, it is true that long before “Little Free Libraries” there were big free libraries thanks to our municipalities. Obviously they rather dwarf the little ones in selection and orderliness, given that the little ones usually top out at a few dozen books. But the little ones have some things going for them too.
First, as they point out, they’re open 24/7. Rather more convenient to find something to read on a rainy weekend if it’s 11 o’clock at night. And, since you can actually take the books, there’s no deadline on returning them. No late fees should you forget about them. No library cards needed either.
The big thing they have though is proximity and visibility. City libraries are often few and far between, and not always conveniently located for those without cars. The little libraries aim to be right in the neighborhoods people live in and walk (or drive) by every day. That’s especially useful for kids on their way to school and indeed one of the main objectives they have is to get books into the hands of children who don’t have many – or any- at home. Their figures show that academically, children who grow up without books at home lag three years behind children who have well-stocked bookshelves and read frequently at home. They hope to let some of those kids catch up. As well, the little boxes o’books help promote community, with neighbors meeting more neighbors and getting involved in their own neighborhood. All of that seems like good reason to cheer.
So if you’re “Marie Kondo-ing” while waiting out this virus*, you might want to investigate and see if there isn’t a little library near you to drop off the books that are straining your shelves. And who knows – you might even find a fun book about an actress you didn’t know of . And, if you’re very lucky, maybe even her rodent.
*it’s of course worth mentioning that it pays to be cautious right now with the corona virus situation. It’s advisable to wear gloves right now if you’re going to use one of the libraries and, of course maintain social distancing if your neighbors are out there too. And as the CDC note that the virus can live for several days on hard surfaces (Healthline say it can survive on paper up to 4 days), currently it might be wise to file away any new acquisition from them for reading a little later on.
Photo – Waco Tribune Herald