Free books and companionship
PHILIP Vahab loves it when strangers wander to the odd, wooden box outside his home. Is it a birdhouse? Is it a fancy mailbox? Some ornamental, neighbourhood talking point?
No. No. And kind of. The box is stuffed with books by different authors, free for the taking. Borrowers can return them – if they want – or trade them for a different book.
The book house is a part of a growing global literary movement.
Known as the “The Free Little Library”, the idea started four years ago in the US when businessman Todd Bol watched his neighbours gobble up books placed outside his home. Back then, he dreamed that 2 500 similar libraries would be constructed by 2014. But to his surprise there are already more than 10 000.
Bol came up with the idea of the little free library in 2009. He was looking for a way to honour the generous nature of his mother who had recently died. He created a model schoolhouse and stuffed it with books. He put up a sign that said “Free Books”. His neighbours were thrilled. “I’ve always been enthralled by how when a puppy or kitty walks into a room, the toughest guys can start to be gentle,” said Bol, now 57. “I put up my library and noticed my neighbours talking to it like it was a little puppy. And I realised there was some kind of magic about it.”
Through the power of books, Bol said, he also saw the power of human interaction. People stopped at the library. They chatted and got to know each other.
“It’s that comfortable, common ground that produces an easy conversation and connection with each other,” Bol said.
Soon Bol’s neighbours set up their own book houses. A friend took the concept to a different part of America. Before long, Bol was featured on a local radio show. Then on TV.
Then came calls from people interested in building their own libraries in other places like Pakistan and Ukraine.
People asked for book houses, so he started a group and hired former convicts to help him build them. At least 3 000 were planted throughout the world.
Vahab built his library in Washington in January thinking it might be an interesting experi- ment for his neighbourhood.
He bought a small, wooden model of a house on the web, stained it and hoisted it on to a pole. He staked it amid the lush little garden he had created near the edge of his front yard. Then he set down small red blocks, like crumbs in the woods, to lead pedestrians down the sidewalk to the library.
Since then, about a dozen mini-libraries have popped up in Washington.
Those who have used the book houses say they offer some simple joys: the thrill of an unexpected find, the abandonment of DeweyDecimal stodginess and – most of all – the creation of a new community space.
Vahab, a 37-year-old orthodontist, plucked the first books from his wife’s collection. When strangers stop in front of his house looking for a distraction from the world, he hopes they might also discover the community around them.
“I just thought it was a great way to get people in the neighbourhood to interact so that we’d get to know each other better,” Vahab said this week near his book house. Then a neighbour interrupted him.
“Hey, there!” said Heidi Decker, a 42-year-old government official. She told him about a book about Jewish history that she recently plucked from the stand.
“I didn’t even see that one,” said Vahab.
“I got there before you did,” Decker said. “I’ll return it.”
After Vahab put his first dozen random books there, neighbours replenished the stock by donating ones of their own. The classics stay for a bit and the self-help books go quickly. But children’s books are always in high demand.
In different areas, though, there is one genre that is the most popular, according to the amateur librarians.
“Cookbooks go fast,’’ said Devon Steven, who started a small library down the street. Apparently, everyone loves a new recipe.
Linnea Dodson, who planted a book house that resembles a British toll booth, said she has received notes of appreciation.
“Thanks so much!” one read. “This reminds me that there is good in the world.” – Washington Post
NEXT ADVENTURE: Linda Greensfelder, with her neighbour’s child Felix Trask, 3, and grandaughter Sadie, 8.