A little over a year ago, my family put up a Little Free Library in front of our building in Harlem. I had gone through the process of getting the project approved by our co-op board, and the building even donated money to have the structure built by a neighborhood carpenter. My children and I carefully culled our stack of children’s book for a month before the library was installed in front of our building. When the day came for the library to open, we were thrilled.
My daughters put the books in the children’s section, and I filled the adult section with books I had culled from my own collection. I taped up signs asking neighbors to “Take a Book, Leave a Book” as well as a placard that explained the Little Free Library philosophy. After it was all set up and perfect, we took our dog for a walk around the block. When we returned, the children’s section was completely empty.
This phenomenon of keeping a Little Free Library filled with books seems to be a common issue. Last year I wrote an article with tips about how to keep your little free library stocked. And as time has gone by and I have witnessed the impact that the library has made on our community, my expectations of our library have changed.
The result? Our Little Free Library gives out over 300 children’s books every month. And do you know what? I’m okay with that.
Not everyone feels the same way. Back in July, an article published by Alternet, titled “My Little Free Library War: How Our Suburban Front-Yard Lending Box Made Me Hate Books and Fear My Neighbors” by Dan Greenstone, showed that someone else had a similar problem of keeping his little library stocked. Mr. Greenstone, however, responded to the challenge by purposely seeking out and putting the most boring books he could inside his library. According to his article, “Ruthless pragmatism became my m.o. Grimly, I took to scouring yard sales and recycling bins for dull books, just another soulless middle manager, firming up his supply chain and moving product.”
I don’t know, Mr. Greenstone. Maybe a Little Free Library is not for you. Just a thought.
When someone puts up a Little Free Library in their yard or their neighborhood, they are given the opportunity to create access to books through sharing and community connection. A little library can be a cute and fun project, but the responsibility begins the day it gets placed in a yard. Daily care is needed, whether it is cleaning up trash someone has left inside, removing advertisements from a well-meaning local church, or replenishing the stock when the inventory gets low.
For me, being a Little Free Library steward in my Harlem neighborhood has given me the opportunity to share my love for books with my neighbors. I live in a beautiful community, and yet it’s one of the poorest districts in New York State. In the recent state tests, only 16% of students in our local elementary school met state standards in English, 15% met state standards in math. This is also the community where neighbors gather at street corners in the morning with their cups of coffee, chatting about their upcoming day or discussing local politics. This is the same community where neighbors come together to clean up trash on the walkways to our one, skinny park by the Harlem River. This is the same community that raucously cheers on the marathon runners during the New York City Marathon every November.
When I first put up our Little Free Library, I imagined that it would be self-operating. The philosophy of “Take a Book, Leave a Book” is a wonderful one, but what do you do when children want to keep the books and don’t have a book to give back?
The answer is community.
After I posted about the challenges of keeping a Little Free Library in a high needs area stocked, a wonderful Youth Services Librarian in San Francisco who had read my article sent me four huge boxes of children’s books.
Six months later, a professor at Barnard College in New York City who had also seen my article asked me to stop by the used bookstore she volunteers at in Washington Heights to pick up excess children’s books for our little library.
The literary agency that represents me contributed six boxes full of ARCs and extra books that they had culled from their shelves during their annual spring cleaning.
The school my children attend packed up six boxes of books they were retiring from the classroom libraries and saved them for me.
Last month, my favorite used bookstore in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood offered to give me their extra children’s books on a monthly basis. At our first pick-up, there were five huge boxes waiting for us. At our second pick-up this past weekend, they had seven boxes for us.
The kindness of friends, strangers, and neighbors – fellow book lovers – never ceases to amaze me. And because of it, our neighborhood is growing rich in literacy, one book at a time.