Free books and com­pan­ion­ship

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Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOODPOSTER - ROBERT SA­MUELS

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.

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