A transplant to the city after raising my sons in a small town, I measure the quality of my urban neighborhood in ways that a Zillow description likely would overlook. Shoveled sidewalks in the winter. Tended flower and vegetable gardens during the summer. Friendly people, of course, and Little Free Libraries.
The half-dozen free-book boxes that I encounter on my milelong walk to work speak to me of neighbors who not only like to read — a value instilled by both my parents — but who are generous and want to share ideas.
Owning and maintaining a Little Free Library is a rewarding hobby for parents who want to see others enjoy the books their children have outgrown or aging former English majors and empty nesters like me who have reached the point in life where our reading years are numbered. Why not pass along the many books I have collected over the years and ones that I will never read again?
In that spirit, here are rules — or tried-and-true suggestions — for launching your own public book box.
Rule 1: Make your book box official
“Little Free Library” has become a generic, all-inclusive term for any wooden or plastic box attached to a stand that holds giveaway books on a public sidewalk. In fact, just as we say Jell-O when referring to gelatin or Kleenex when we mean any brand of facial tissue, Little Free Library is a trademarked term, dating back to 2013. It also is a nonprofit organization and a brand that sports its own tagline: Take a Book. Share a Book.
I was put off, initially, by the expense of ordering a ready-made box or a build-your-own Little Free Library kit from the website; costs start at $260 for a box of unfinished wood and an additional $80 to $180 for the ground post. Instead my husband, a handy guy who likes to build things, constructed our book box out of salvaged lumber and a cottage window we were replacing in our house.
I didn’t realize that purchasing a structure from the Little Free Library organization would have netted a range of benefits — including access to a 13,000-person private Facebook group for Little Free Library Stewards and the option to buy deeply discounted books to keep the mix of offerings fresh and appealing. More important, the purchase would have enabled me to support a global organization, based in Hudson, Wisconsin, whose mission includes “championing diverse books,” “removing barriers to book access” and supplying stocked Little Free Library boxes to “high-need areas,” including Native communities.
The board of directors models the diversity that the organization promotes and includes literacy experts, academics, and nonprofit and business leaders — book lovers, all.
Clearly, my $400 to $500 investment in official Little Free Library materials would have been money well spent. Turns out it wasn’t too late. After poking around the website, I figured out how to register my homemade box with the organization, which will put me on the Little Free Library map and get me a numbered “charter” sign for what I will soon, officially, be able to call my Little Free Library.
Rule 2: Keep it up
I use metal bookends to keep the books upright in my library, and I straighten the books every day, sometimes rearranging them — a la the endcap displays at either end of grocery store aisles — to draw people’s attention to a good read that apparently has been overlooked. (Who wouldn’t benefit from Anne Lamott’s Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, for example, especially if they’ve already read Traveling Mercies?)
Because my library looks tended and cared for and ripe for exploration, it has become a true library, a neighborhood resource, a place where people stop by not only to find a good read but to donate good books: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue and Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult were two recent contributions that I previously had enjoyed.
I dog-walk through my neighborhood every morning, often deliberately coaxing my willful beasts down the blocks where I know Little Free Libraries stand. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have strolled past boxes that look appealing — their design mimics the architecture of the house or they’re painted a cheerful array of colors — only to find empty shelves, a disorganized mass of magazines or a shelf stocked two-deep with books so I can’t possibly see the contents while holding dog leashes.
So, I move on. Any library that is poorly stocked or is a public trash can for materials the owners otherwise would toss is not worth repeat visits.
Rule 3: Curate your selection
I have taken religious tracts (My Utmost for His Highest and Investing in God’s Business: The “How-to” of Smart Christian Giving) to book boxes at the Episcopal, Catholic and United Church of Christ churches in my neighborhood. I reluctantly recycled a Bible that was falling apart — holding off for a day to be sure it wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction to the forced churchgoing of my childhood, where I was always bored and eventually came to wonder (and then resent) why both God and the ministers were male.
A neighbor once teased me about “censorship” after I posted on Facebook about recycling a Women’s Health magazine (“My Little Free Library, my rules”) showing an impossibly thin young woman and the headline: “Bikini Body Now.” It isn’t censorship, I shot back, it’s called curating — and, in fact, such discernment is essential to maintaining some measure of quality in the materials you showcase outside your home.
I’ve rejected and recycled waterlogged novels, books with the covers held together by rubber bands, advanced uncorrected proofs, a dated state bicycle map, a Lutheran hymnal, romance novels, cookbooks from the ’90s and academic texts. A Little Free Library cannot be a dumping ground, especially if you want your neighbors to see your box as worthy of the literature and thought-provoking nonfiction — like Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, novels by Russell Banks and Jane Smiley, The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl — that they have read and are paying forward.
A retired high school English teacher down the block makes that clear with this handwritten sign on her book box: Please respect the spirit of this Little Free Library and only put books in here that you have enjoyed and you believe someone else would, too. Do NOT put in books that you merely are trying to get rid of.
Rule 4: Commit to the investment
My younger son recently brought over a bag of books that he no longer wants; those are stacked in a corner of the living room, waiting for winter to pass and more walkers to be outside so we can refresh our book box selection. I recently brought home another copy of The Late Homecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang that I grabbed from a table of free books at the university where I work.
That now sits on a kitchen shelf my husband and I have devoted to books-in-waiting for the Little Free Library. Goodwill stores have proven to be a worthwhile place to shop for $2 hardcovers and paperbacks for a buck.
During the pandemic, people have been raiding some of the book boxes in my neighborhood — “Little Free Library Shenanigans” was a recent headline on Nextdoor.com — and likely trying to sell the books at used bookstores. The problem is pervasive enough that it merited a story on the Little Free Library website, where Half-Price Books has declared it will never knowingly buy books filched from a free library.
Once my charter membership is official, and I become a “steward” of the Little Free Library ethos of generosity, I can order book labels or a rubber stamp that says, “Always a Gift; Never for Sale.”
That speaks to the true purpose of a public library and to the trust — in our neighbors, in all of humankind — that we Little Free Library stewards aim to instill in our communities.