How My Little Free Library Became Self-Sustaining

It’s the dream of anyone who starts a Little Free Library: You put the little box of book love up in your yard or in a park or in front of your favorite coffee shop. You fill it with books and wait in eager anticipation for people to discover it. You envision a small community around your library, a place where people will excitedly stop by every morning, wanting to see what new books they can grab and returning some oldies but goodies they’ve taken. You can’t wait to see what new books appear in your library and how excited people will be to use it.

The reality of running a Little Free Library is often much less bright and cheery. A lot of the books that get put in aren’t anything anyone would want to take. People take more than they give. A very small percentage of books get returned; miniscule, at first. I’ve seen more than one Little Free Library lying completely empty, never refilled, never used, every time I pass by them. It’s a sad sight.

My Little Free Library is different. It’s become a destination. Everyone knows about the house with the library in front of it; people have made it a point to change their running and dog walking routes every morning and evening so they can pass by it and see what’s new. I have neighbors coming by once a week with bags of (great) books, eager to share their books and pick out some new ones. People even stop by on their commutes home, pulling over in their cars so they can see the latest and greatest of the library.

Open Little Free Library

How did this happen? How did my library get to the point where it’s self-sustaining, that after a week of not checking on it, it looks like this?

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The answer: Hard work, plain and simple.

My library’s been running for over a year now. I’ve written multiple posts on it; how to run a Little Free Library, how to be a good patron, even about the time someone stole all the books out of my library (sadface).

At the beginning, I thought my library was popular because of location; I live in an urban, walkable neighborhood. There’s a popular park across the street. It’s a busy sidewalk with a lot of traffic. And that was very important for discoverability. But, over the past year, I’ve found that there’s one thing that’s even more important than location: the quality of the books.

For the first 8 months of my Little Free Library’s life, I checked it Every. Single. Day. I curated the hell out of it; I didn’t hesitate to pull books out and recycle them, replacing them with the nice shiny books I had around. And slowly but surely, I got my neighbors used to the fact that there will always be good books in the library. Even if, right that second, there was nothing that appealed to them, they could check back a few days later, and I would have put new and interesting books in. They trusted the fact that they could part with their good books, and they’d find something great in return. No one wants to part with great books to put in a Little Free Library if they’re only ever going to find “meh” books in return. That trust between patron and steward is the only way a Little Free Library will even become self-sustaining. These days, I only have to put in a few books a week to keep the supply rolling.

Now, I have a pretty limitless supply of books to choose from, being a reviewer, but, if you’re a steward and want to develop a community around your library, hit up library book sales. There are cheap used paperbacks out there; spend time looking for them at thrift stores. Being a steward is more than just putting up a library and waiting for everyone to come to you. There’s a responsibility there, and you have to build trust with your patrons. Once you do that, they’ll keep coming back, with armfuls of books to supplement your library!

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