The Little Library Under the Oak


Nicki Leone


I have a new ritual every morning when I get up. After I’ve said good morning to the dogs, and fed the cats (who prefer tuna to a morning hug), and put the water on for coffee, I fill a plastic jug with water, pick up three or four books from the stack by the door, and stroll down to the end of the driveway. There I pick up my newspaper, water the mums, and add the books to the empty spots on the shelves of the little roofed structure standing at the curb. My own personal “Little Free Library” —painted red, white and blue, with a glass door with a hook latch, and the words “please take a book” scrawled across the front in grease paint.

So far, there have always been empty spots to fill.

The Little Free Library is a grassroots movement which sprang into being about four years ago largely thanks to a guy named Todd Boll, who liked to build things and who also liked to read. He started building little informal “libraries” for friends as part of a fundraising project for literacy in his town of Madison, Wisconsin. People would set up their little box libraries in front of their houses or by their storefronts, fill the shelves with books, and watch as passersby stopped and “borrowed” them. Each one became a point of shared community experience—a manifestation of the neighborhood’s love of reading. One that involved more generosity of spirit and less wine than is found in your average book club.

When he first started the project Boll said he dreamed of there being more little free libraries than Andrew Carnegie was able to establish with his Free Community Library Project. Carnegie created 2,510 public libraries. As of August, 2012, The Little Free Library Movement has registered more than 2,500 little personal lending libraries—some as far away as Ghana and Pakistan. A dream has been realized.

It’s easy to see why the movement has been so popular here in the United States. For one thing, the books are free. And in this country we love things that are free. Also, the little libraries are all very cute. The people who build them can really get carried away—creating gingerbread-like concoctions that resemble dollhouses more than lending libraries.

But we love cute almost as much as we love free, and the bright happy colors, the suggestion of a literary life-in-miniature, these things tend to gender happy feelings in us. It is almost impossible to look at these tiny book houses and not smile. At the Decatur Book Festival this year about two dozen little free libraries were auctioned off to raise money for literacy, each one painted by an artist or children’s book illustrator. I thought about bidding on the one that had been painted by James Dean (the illustrator of the marvelous Pete the Cat books), but alas the starting bid was $500.

You could buy a lot of books for $500. Which basically encapsulates my difficult relationship with libraries. I like to take books, but I don’t like to give them back. “Greed” is the deadly sin against which I do not put up even a token fight when it comes to books. The books that come into my house tend to stay there. This is why I was better suited as a bookseller than a librarian—if there has been one over-riding task at which I have worked for my entire life, it has been to create the perfect personal library, literally within arm’s reach.

So, while more generously-inclined people were bidding on the lovingly-constructed and artfully painted “little libraries” at the Decatur Book Festival Literacy Auction, I was installing the last of my floor-to-ceiling book cases, and carefully cataloging the most recent additions to be added to the shelves. And while people around the country and indeed around the world were putting out books in their little spontaneous lending libraries for others to take and read, I was putting more volumes onto already overburdened shelves that only I could see. They were building community. I was building a private fortress out of books.

Still, I’m as susceptible to “free” and “cute” and general communal goodwill as the next person. And I do like to share my love for my favorite books, which is why books are the only things anyone ever receives from me as a present. I also have more books than I actually want, since I frequently receive review copies in the mail that I have no intention of reviewing, or even reading. Ethical considerations will not allow me to get rid of these unasked-for and unwanted books by selling them, but I don’t mind giving them away to someone who might enjoy them. After all, a book is not “finished” when we turn the last page. It is finished for us only when we no longer have anything we want to say about it to others. A book has not fulfilled its destiny until it has been read, and shared.

Then too, I am a shy and awkward person, as much as I would like not to be, and absolutely dreadful at doing things like making small talk with the neighbors. I much prefer to stay behind my fortress of books, and keep company with my dogs and cats. So I’d never just stop the folks who stroll by the house and talk to them. Even about books.

But, I thought, if I put up a Little Free Library, perhaps it could do my talking for me.

Since I did not have $500 handy to bid on a specially-designed library from the Decatur Book Festival, or even $250 to buy one from the Little Free Library website, I found a picture of one and sent it to Deb—my friend who built all my book cases. She likes unusual projects, especially when they come with no deadlines. And a couple of weeks later, finding herself with a pile of recycled wood and some free time on a rainy afternoon, Deb got out her tape measure and jigsaw and built me a little house with a tin roof, a shelf, and a glass door.

      38b      38c      38d

We placed it under the big live oak tree in my front yard, right across the street from the neighborhood community boat dock. I thought under the tree might be best since it would protect the books from sun damage. And even though some of the drivers can be a little, well, casual, about road lanes after a day spent on the water with nothing but a cooler full of beer to keep them busy, they do tend to avoid driving directly at the big tree, so I hoped they would thus also avoid accidently knocking down my little library in the same way they have taken out several mailboxes on the street.

It’s not the sturdiest structure in the world. I think I would have to bring it in during a hurricane, and I wouldn’t vouch for it staying upright if, say, an adult bicyclist crashed into it. But I think it is rated up to children on skateboards.

When I first put the library out, I admit I didn’t know what to expect. I just filled the shelves with books and tried not to spend the rest of the day peering out the front windows to see if anyone had stopped to look at them. But the following morning I checked the library when I walked down to pick up my paper, and sure enough, there were gaps. Books had gone. Which books, I couldn’t say. I hadn’t made a list and wasn’t trying to keep track. (I knew from experience that trying to track the books in my library would turn the whole project from something fun into another chore I was sure to neglect. Like dusting. Or balancing my checkbook). I put out more books, but left a few gaps so people would think that books were being taken.

The next day, more were gone. I realized people seemed to like the paperback fiction. Especially the vampire stuff. I had a lot of vampire stuff to give away. I snuck in some Octavia Butler, in the hopes of raising the bar on their vampire reading.

Another day, more books had gone. Another day, and even more. I started to notice that the people who took their regular walks were now making regular stops at the little library under the oak tree. Refilling the shelves became a morning routine for me.

And then, after about a week, when I’d refilled the library more often than I ever thought I would have to, I came outside one morning with my usual armful and saw that a woman had pulled up to the library in her car, and was standing in front of it, looking through the books on the shelves. I loitered at the top of my driveway, hiding out of sight, waiting for her to pick her book and leave. When she drove away, I walked down, intending to fill the new gaps in the shelves—only to discover that they had been filled. My latest library patron had left a stack of James Patterson paperbacks to be added to the collection. They are now in circulation in the neighborhood, along with a stack of southern novels, a couple of collections of humorous essays by Nan Graham, Kirk Neely, and Celia Rivenbark, and a children’s book about a cat and a dog that survived Hurricane Katrina called The Two Bobbies.

The front of my house faces east, so in the mornings I like to sit in my library looking out the big floor-to-ceiling windows down the hill towards the road and to the waterway beyond.  The sun pours in, the dogs vie with the cats for the warmest spots, I drink coffee and read and watch the procession of fishermen pull into the marina across the street with their Jon Boats on  rusty trailers, their trucks filled with fishing gear and beer coolers. And now, they sometimes stop under my oak tree, and pick up a couple books to take with them out on the water along with their beer and their bait. It’s a bit voyeuristic of me, but I like to watch them from the safety of my book fortress, and wonder what they have chosen to read, and whether they will keep the book because they liked it, bring the book back because they didn’t, or return it to be picked up by someone else, because they liked it so much they want others to have a chance to read it.

I won’t intrude on them to ask. But perhaps I’ll get my friend to add a little shelf for a pad of paper and a pencil, so people can leave notes if they like. Or maybe add my own recommendations for a better class of vampire books.

Books mentioned—well, alluded to—in this column:
Bless Your Heart, Tramp: And Other Southern Endearments by Celia Rivenbark (St. Martins, 2006)
Fledgling by Octavia Butler (Warner Books, 2007)
A Good Mule Is Hard to Find: And Other Tales from Red Clay Country by Kirk Neely (Hub City Writers Project, 2009)
Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin; James Dean (Illustrator) (HarperCollins, 2010)
Turn South at the Next Magnolia: Directions from a Lifelong Southerner by Nan Graham (Livingston Press, 2009)
The Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival by Kirby Larson; Mary Nethery; Jean Cassels (Illustrator) (Walker Childrens, 2008)  


Nicki Leone showed her proclivities early when as a young child she asked her parents if she could exchange the jewelry a well-meaning relative had given her for Christmas for a dictionary instead. She supported her college career with a part-time job in a bookstore, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her college career and attending scholarships and financial aid loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. She has been in the book business for over twenty years. Currently she works for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. Nicki has been a book reviewer for several magazines, her local public radio station and local television stations. She was one of the founders of The Cape Fear Crime Festival, currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers Network, and as Managing Editor of BiblioBuffet. Plus, she blogs at Will Read for Food. She manages all this by with the loving support of varying numbers of dogs and cats. Contact Nicki.



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