by Marnie Wellar
A few years ago in Montreal, I saw a charming little wooden cupboard set up on a post outside a coffee shop. A notice on the little door offered free books, and the cabinet had a variety of books inside. What a beautiful idea, full of goodness! I decided I would make one someday.
Last year I was deep into a major DIY project: a minimal-waste, salvaged-materials sustainable kitchen renovation. It’s a rewarding approach, but also painstaking and protracted. Taking a week off to make a Little Free Library would be the perfect side project, one I could enjoy accomplishing quickly.
My LFL took a few hours to design and a few hours to build. It’s made from discarded materials, with the exception of the corrugated plastic panel on the back and roof. My plan was to use a repurposed election sign for this, but when the rumoured spring election didn’t happen I had to buy it new. To speed things up, I temporarily put on an Ikea door I found in the trash, but later I made a permanent door from a scrap of marine plywood, reusing the glass and hardware from the first door.
The day I put the cabinet up, the first book was taken before I could even finish filling it. I don’t remember what the book was, but here is what I remember from that first mix: fiction including Atwood, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Alice Munro, Ondaatje, Guy de Maupassant, Hemingway, Rebecca West and Dickens; cheesy 1960s paperback science fiction (it’s 1998, we fly around on little rockets, polygamy is the norm, women have extra breasts and we’re at war with aliens); some very tiny, very old leather-bound volumes of poetry; a few kooky vintage things, including the manual for a 1950s Ford pick-up, a Jell-o cookbook and a 1930s Ontario elementary school primer; some DIY books on how to cultivate mushrooms, reduce your carbon footprint, make traditional Ukrainian food and train your mind to resist dementia; serious nonfiction (Naomi Klein, Bill Bryson, Dawkins, Adam Gopnik, two different biographies of Stephen Harper, The Communist Manifesto, local history stuff, Freakonomics); and very serious nonfiction (pandemics, rape culture, Middle East conflict, climate change and the global financial crisis).
It was so gratifying to watch people discover the library. Every person stopped to investigate the mysterious new object. Some loudly exclaimed with delight when they realized what it was, others gave it an intense silent examination from every angle. People even crossed the street or stopped their cars to take a look. Books flew off the shelves. Dozens of books were taken in the first few days: The Remains of the Day, Frances Itani, Anne Frank, Three Cups of Tea, Life of Pi, Jon Krakauer and the first of many copies of The Catcher in the Rye.
For many people running an LFL (officially known as “stewards”), too much taking and not enough leaving is a concern, but in my case it was what I’d hoped for. I had a ready source of books and no worries about keeping the LFL stocked. I work at the May Court Library, a charity library at The Ottawa Hospital, Civic campus. This program provides recreational reading material to hospital patients and staff, using fundraised money, volunteer labour (with a paid part-time library manager), and donated books and magazines. It’s been going for a hundred years or so, since the wounded veterans of the First World War needed something to read.
Some of the material donated to the May Court Library is perfect for the program, and a lot of it isn’t. We need the type of things one would take to a sick friend – popular books and current magazines in pristine condition. Anything else has to be disposed of. Everything that’s damaged, dirty, smoky or mouldy goes to recycling. We get a fair bit of this kind of stuff and it would be so much better all round if people didn’t bring it to us. Then there are all the books that are in fine condition, but they’re just too old, weighty or weird for the May Court Library. These are either donated to thrift shops and charity book sales, sold at a May Court Library book sale (in January, May and October at the hospital) or I set them aside in my special pile. When I’d been at the May Court Library for four months, my special pile had become very substantial and I realized it could easily supply an LFL.
The LFL had been up for a few days, books were being taken in droves and all was going according to plan, when an unexpected thing happened. People began to leave books. Beautiful books: Jane Eyre, Pippi Longstocking (in Swedish), Room, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, a history of lawn bowling, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Tale for the Time Being. It was so delightful.
One morning I found a volume of Anna Karenina, a new translation, by Pevear and Volokhonsky. Over the years I had tried, very hard, several times, to read various translations of this supposedly fabulous novel, but each time I found it insanely boring and gave up. However, I read this new version with the greatest enjoyment, and at last understand why people love this book.Thank you, unknown friend, for a precious gift!
Then someone left The Girl on the Train. At the time this was a newish book; it still had a prominent spot in all the bookshops and critics were discussing it. It was exactly the kind of book we always need more of at the hospital: a compulsive thriller that will keep even a distracted reader interested, and a recent book that lots of people have heard of, but haven’t all read yet. I took it to the May Court Library and put it into the window; it was borrowed by lunchtime.
Much as they are at the May Court Library, people are very generous with their books at the LFL. Some are in such perfect condition it’s hard to imagine their pages have ever been turned. Once in a while, not often, something a little disappointing is left in the LFL, such as a mouldy book or four copies of Fifty Shades of Grey all at once, or election pamphlets. And there are some books that no one will take: textbooks and manuals, religious publications, romance novels, old blockbusters, pretentious fiction, “heavy” classics (Ancient Greeks, most poetry, Shakespeare) and self-help books. Also, no one took Jian Ghomeshi’s memoir.
Some weeks as many as 40 to 50 books are traded. It’s busier in the summer and on weekends. The books that are snatched up quickest are classics, handsome, odd little volumes concerning arcane subject matter, books on art and culture, and popular history. Multiple copies have been traded of everything by Jane Austen, The Girl on the Train, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, The Great Gatsby, Ru by Kim Thuy, Life of Pi, P.G. Wodehouse, Virginia Woolf, The Rosie Project and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
One novel deserves special mention. So far, I have put seven copies of The Catcher in the Rye into the LFL, and each was taken immediately. To neighbours who were awakened one night last summer by a passionate literary debate about Holden Caulfield, I apologize. When two inebriated young men found the book in the LFL, their discussion was loud and uninhibited. The question at issue: is the protagonist a narcissistic jerk and always will be, or is he a messed-up kid who will in time turn out to be decent person? They were not able to come to an agreement, but eventually took the book and left, still arguing.
Curating the collection is really fun. I usually check the LFL once or twice a day, sometimes more on summer weekends, because if the weather is nice it can get to overflowing or nearly empty very quickly. I remove anything that’s hung around too long, and add and subtract books to keep the mix lively and fresh. Sometimes I take everything out and put in a whole new mix. Once for a day I filled the LFL with nothing but zombie fiction, and once I did any language but English.
I feel my LFL has been a massive success, for me and for the community. I love taking care of it, curating the collection, putting new things in that I know someone will be thrilled to find, and later seeing that they’ve been taken. When I put in a book that’s incredibly good or totally devastating or funny as hell, I think about how it will affect the person who takes it. (To whoever took Sophie’s Choice – I hope you’re okay now.)
People are kind about expressing their appreciation for the LFL. If I’m outside, passersby thank me for it. One guy pointed at it and yelled, really loud, “BEST. PRESENT. EVER!!!” Sometimes people ring the doorbell to thank me. I was given $5 by a very nice man, and I have received some really sweet cards, as well as a cupcake and a chocolate bar. Also not long ago at the grocery, a lady looked at me and said in an undertone to her friend, “That’s the woman with that library on Fifth,” and her friend whispered, “It IS? I got Sarah’s Key from there! That was a great book.”
Business has been slow at the LFL for the last little while, due to weather. This illustrates another unique aspect of the LFL: it’s reading that offers deep engagement with your surroundings. When it’s nasty out, people won’t stand around with their mitts off, paging through books, while the wind drives ice pellets into their faces.
There are some intriguing books in the LFL right now: Cranford by Mrs.Gaskell, The Count of Monte Cristo, biographies of porn star Ron Jeremy (“the hardest (working) man in America”) and former vice-president Dick Cheney, some Edith Wharton and Anna Karenina (Pevear and Volokhonsky edition). It is ready for the next sunny day.
Littlefreelibrary.org – the movement
Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, built the first Little Free Library in honour of his mother. It’s now become a worldwide movement and the website has a map of all registered Little Free Libraries, including mine, which is #27815. The organization gives lots of advice for people who want to set up a library. You can also order a kit or an already-built structure, and there are lots of photographs and free plans posted.