Little Free Libraries make a big splash in Charlotte

08/08/2014 3:06 PM

08/09/2014 4:38 PM

Sure, the collections at Charlotte’s newest public libraries are limited. Most, after all, aren’t much bigger than bird houses.

But these Little Free Libraries – boxes that provide a place to trade books and make connections – are part of a booming national movement that’s being lauded for encouraging both reading and community. It began in 2009, when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wis., built a replica of a red schoolhouse to honor his late mother. To say it has caught on is like saying James Patterson’s thrillers are sort of popular.

Five years after that first box, the number of these little libraries is approaching 20,000 worldwide. North Carolina now has more than 190 scattered from Boone to Nags Head. Charlotte has more than 30. These numbers are probably low, since they include only boxes registered with the Little Free Library group, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that promotes the libraries and champions an array of literacy and community projects.

Most boxes, such as Karen Lockhart’s in Elizabeth, were erected and maintained in front of houses by the people who live there. There’s also one in Midwood Park, and another on 36th Street in NoDa. And there are plans for more, thanks to efforts by the City of Charlotte and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Foundation’s Friends Council.

Bol’s idea was simple. Visitors could take the books he’d placed in the box and, if they wanted, replenish the supply with their own. Some little libraries also contain notebooks, where patrons can jot comments or book reviews. Bol, who heads the nonprofit, says he’s as surprised as anyone at how the concept has taken off.

Obviously, something about these boxes catches the imagination. Maybe it’s their whimsy – or their low-tech practically. “It’s almost like a present at Christmas,” Bol says. “You open the package and the kids get excited. We have pictures of kids with their butts sticking out of them as they lean in trying to discover all the books.”

Or maybe it’s how they can connect both neighbors and strangers, one book at time. “It’s got to be something primal with us,” he says, “that we have this need to connect with each other.”

Last year, the Little Free Library organization made Reader’s Digest’s list of “50 Surprising Reasons We Love America.” It came in 11th, after sliced bread, but ahead of Bruce Springsteen and Bill Gates.

Perfect spot to converge

Karen Lockhart was thinking about connections last summer when she installed her Little Free Library. Her house, at Laurel and Kenmore avenues, sees lots of foot traffic, so it seemed a perfect spot for neighbors to converge. Also, she figured that donating books to the little box would be a good way to thin her own extensive collection.

She and her husband, Gregg Lockhart, ordered a kit from Little Free Library. Kits range from about $175 to $1,000. You can also use your own materials and build for less.

After they assembled the box on a pole, secured it in cement and painted it pink and purple with a multicolored roof, she introduced the little library to her neighbors in a flier. “It belongs to everybody – neighbors, friends, and people we don’t even know yet,” she wrote. “Anyone can use it.”

The box had been up only five minutes when a neighbor arrived to deposit books. One recent morning, it held more than 30, a mix that included bridge instructional manuals, a novel by sportswriter Frank Deford, a Discover Girls magazine, a crime novel, a mystery and a popular tween novel, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.”

Often, Lockhart sees parents and children reading together on the bench beside the box. “Families with kids really seem to enjoy it,” she says. “It totally warms your heart.”

Expect more boxes around town soon. The Library Foundation’s Friends Council plans four to six over the next year. The council has already built three – at the Shamrock Senior Center in east Charlotte; Preston House, an assisted living off Harris Boulevard; and Joyland, a home day care in east Charlotte.

“We are trying to find areas not physically close to a library” or where residents can’t easily get to libraries, volunteer Heather McCullough says. The council re-stocks the boxes as needed.

Inside the wooden box

Charlotte’s Neighborhood Matching Grants Program, meanwhile, is accepting grant applications from neighborhood associations that want to build a box. The goal is to promote fellowship and engagement between neighbors, says Atalie Zimmerman, Neighborhood Matching Grants program manager.

The Little Free Library organization describes people who build these boxes as “stewards,” not “owners,” since the libraries are meant for everyone. Several stewards in Charlotte told the Observer that their libraries were thriving. Lockhart reports, however, that hers gets so many donations she’s had no luck fulfilling one of her original goals – thinning her own book collection.

In fact, Lockhart has become one of her library’s best patrons. She’s now reading “My Brilliant Friend,” by Elena Ferrante. It’s a novel she would have never discovered if it hadn’t landed in that wooden box.

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