Boxes of Books

by Charlotte Smith
November 2017

A brightly decorated triangular wooden box sits on the corner of W. Henderson Street and N. Lumina Avenue in Wrightsville Beach, waiting for passersby to open the wood-framed glass door and take -- or leave -- a book. The dark blue aluminum roof protects the interior from the elements, preserving the books that patiently wait for a new owner to open their pages, giving them new life.

The beach-house modeled box holds books by authors including Mary Higgins Clark, Nora Roberts, and Catherine Coulter. It also includes a Bible and a guestbook, so locals and vacationers alike can share their experiences and appreciation.

This box is a Little Free Library, one of 60,000 worldwide. The "take a book, return a book" idea is meant to encourage reading and allow for increased book access.

Anyone is invited to use this "mini town square."

"The mission is to inspire a love of reading, build community, and spark creativity through these book exchanges," says Margret Aldrich, author of "The Little Free Library Book" and program manager for the Little Free Library organization.

The Little Free Library at the intersection of W. Henderson and N. Lumina, on the grounds of the Sand Crab Cottage, was installed by Jody Becker, the owner of the vacation house.

"It is dedicated to my late grandmother, Mabel Jensen, who was a one-room school teacher," says Becker, who lives in Fairfax, Virginia, for most of the year. "She read to me often and instilled in me my love of books. It gets a lot of walker traffic, and it's fun to sit up on the porch and watch it all. I maintain it when I am in town. Otherwise my housekeeper takes care of it, as do the residents on the street. They've really adopted it and frequently add books themselves."

Wrightsville Beach residents and visitors have a second option not quite a block away on the Loop. There's another little box at 803 N. Lumina Avenue, installed three summers ago by Paula Lanier, with an official Little Free Library sign over the door and an invitation to "take a book" and "return a book."

"I love to read and I had books all over the house," Lanier says. "I saw Little Free Libraries online and said, 'I want to do that.' I just love my library. I sit on the porch and people don't know I'm there and I love to hear what they say. It's been fun to watch. A man left a note that said 'This is a great idea, I'll bring a book a week.' That's what I love about it. I'll even put a new book in there because I want to share it with somebody."

Todd Bol built the first Little Free Library in 2009 as a tribute to his mother, a schoolteacher with a love of books. His box -- a model of a red-and-white one-room schoolhouse, complete with a bell atop the box and a small sign with his mother's name -- was a hit in his neighborhood in Hudson, Wisconsin, inspiring Bol and college student Rick Brooks to make more. Little Free Library officially became the name in 2010. It was registered as a nonprofit in 2012. The organization has spread from Wisconsin to 80 countries, from Pakistan to Brazil to New Zealand.

"There's something about the act of sharing and community and love of reading that has really struck a chord all around the globe," Aldrich says. "We all have books sitting on our shelves in our houses, and it's exciting to give this book a new life in the hands of someone else."

The little libraries can be simple, like a recycled newspaper box, or extravagantly built in the shape of something like a Victorian house or a rocket ship. The creativity put into each box is up to the imagination of the steward who builds it.

"I think people connect with Little Free Libraries because it's really fun, and it's this whimsical, kind of magical thing that you find on the sidewalk," Aldrich says. "It's the charm factor they are initially drawn to."

Stewards are responsible for maintaining their boxes, keeping them nice, neat and stocked with books.

"Nobody really claims to 'own' their library," Becker says. "It belongs to the community and is meant to encourage reading, community spirit, and service to others."

Typically, children's books need to be replenished the most often. Paul Smith, a volunteer for the box in Smith Creek Park in Wilmington, has noticed this trend.

"The adult books tend to be self-sustaining as borrowers tend to 'take one, leave one,'" he says. "That's not the case with children's and young adult literature, which we need to replenish maybe once a month."

Aldrich, who lives in Minneapolis, set up her own Little Free Library on her busy block. It has a painted yellow door and a fox head doorknob. She says her children, who are in elementary school, enjoy checking the box every day to see what new books are inside. She, too, keeps a guestbook in her box for users to leave a note, picture or poem.

"It can be really heartwarming to know who is using the library and what it means to them," Aldrich says.

The tiny libraries can also work with public libraries as outreach tools. In the summer of 2014, the New Hanover County public library system and the parks system placed boxes in Kings Grant and Arrowhead parks. Now, boxes are located in Northern Regional, Hugh MacRae, River Road, Smith Creek and Ogden parks.

The boxes originally were dubbed "Park Pages," a title that was quickly forgotten in favor of "Free Little Libraries." The collaborative effort combines two of the county's strategic objectives: literacy and healthy living.

"Get them outside, and give them a book," says Paige Owens, New Hanover County Public Library assistant director. "They carry the good feelings of the library into a different environment."

The Parks and Gardens Department provides the space and builds the boxes, and the library keeps them stocked with public donations to the library's book sale.

Volunteers are in charge of restocking and maintaining the boxes. Smith, the steward for the Smith Creek Park location, visits his once a week.

Smith joined the Library Advisory Board after retiring to Wilmington four years ago, taking after his mother, who worked for a library. A frequent visitor of Smith Creek Park, he eagerly volunteered to maintain the box.

"To me, the public library is the lifeblood of a community, the closest thing to a town square where everyone, regardless of age, race, or socio-economic status, can come together," he says. "I appreciate the Little Free Libraries as it makes library resources accessible to people who may not regularly visit brick-and-mortar libraries, and exposes children to reading opportunities they might not otherwise get."

Children are a main focus of this initiative. The collaboration aims to aid education and promote literacy.

"By having reading material available in parks for children, this helps children and families read together and encourages kids to read," Owens says.

Ideas to introduce more local boxes are already forming. Owens says the library would like to get involved with the City of Wilmington to expand the boxes' presence to locations that would benefit from increased access to reading materials.

"We exist to connect people and books and people and information, and whatever shape that takes it's always a good thing," she says.

 


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