‘Free Little Library’ concept spreads from Midwest to the rest of the U.S.

Sep 27 2013 - 2:16pm

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BILL O'LEARY/The Washington Post
Felix Trask, 3, and his mother Christine Carroll browse through the free little library of Linda Greensfelder (not pictured) Thursday in Washington, D.C.
BILL O'LEARY/The Washington Post
Felix Trask, 3, and his mother Christine Carroll browse through the free little library of Linda Greensfelder (not pictured) Thursday in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON -- Philip Vahab loves it when strangers wander to the odd, wooden box outside his Washington rowhouse. Is it a birdhouse? Is it a fancy mailbox? Some ornamental, neighborhood talking point?

No. No. And kind of. The box is stuffed with paperbacks by authors from Dean Koontz and Don DeLillo, free for the taking. Borrowers can return them -- if they want -- or trade them for a different book.

At first blush, it might seem quaint. But the book house is a part of a burgeoning global literary movement just now taking root in the region.

"The Free Little Library" concept started four years ago in the Midwest, when an entrepreneur named Todd Bol watched his neighbors gobble up books placed outside his home. Back then, he dreamed that 2,500 similar libraries would be constructed by 2014. He was naive. There are already more than 10,000.

Honoring mother

Bol cooked up the idea of the little free library in Hudson, Wis., in 2009. He was looking for a way to honor the generous nature of his mother, who had recently died. He created a model schoolhouse and stuffed it with books beloved by his parents, starting with Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation." He put up a sign that said, "Free Books."

His neighbors cooed.

"I've always been enthralled by how when a little puppy or kitty walks into a room and the toughest guys can start to be gentle,'' said Bol, now 57. "I put up my library and noticed my neighbors talking to it like it was a little puppy. And I realized there was some kind of magic about it."

Through the power of books, Bol said, he also saw the power of human interaction. People stopped at the library. They chatted and got to know each other.

"It's that comfortable, common ground that produces an easy conversation and connection with each other,'' Bol said.

Bol's neighbors set up their own book houses. A friend took the concept to Madison, where it spread. Before long, Bol was featured on a local radio show. Then on the "NBC Nightly News."

Beyond the U.S.

Then came calls from people interested in building their own libraries in places including Pakistan and Ukraine. People asked for book houses, so he started a nonprofit group and hired former convicts to help him build them. 

In the District of Columbia, the first recorded little library belongs to Vahab. He built it in January, thinking it might be an interesting experiment for his neighborhood.

He purchased a small, wooden model of a house on the Web, stained it and hoisted it onto a pole. He staked it amid the lush little garden he had created in a swale near the edge of his front yard. Then he set down small red blocks, like crumbs in the woods, to lead pedestrians down the sidewalk to the library.

Now thousands of such libraries have sprouted throughout the world.

Ink-on paper

These rustic libraries offering ink-on-paper books are an archaic turn for the literary scene, as major bookstores close and public libraries march toward modernization. Of the 3.3 million books circulated in the District of Columbia's library system last year, data show that more than 255,000 were e-books -- a 149 percent increase from 2012. The circulation of printed books fell 18 percent.

Those who have used the book houses say they offer some simple joys: the thrill of an unexpected find, the abandonment of Dewey-Decimal stodginess and -- most of all -- the creation of a new community space.

Vahab, a 37-year-old orthodontist, is by no means a book lover. He plucked the first books from his wife's collection. When strangers stop in front of his house looking for a distraction from the world, he hopes that they might also discover the community around them.

"I just thought it was a great way to get people in the neighborhood to interact so that we'd get to know each other better," Vahab said.

Few people return the books. That suits the stewards just fine. After Vahab put his first dozen random books there, neighbors replenished the stock by donating ones of their own.

"None of us have front porches, so this is the way we get to interact," Decker said.

For Linda Greensfelder, a retired school nurse who lives in Cleveland Park, the greatest joy happens twice every weekday. It is when she catches glimpses of a mother and her 5-year-old son, going to and from school. He can't go past the block without stopping by the little book house, looking for his next adventure.

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