AT THE END of a single-lane, dead-end dirt road in the Adirondacks, several miles from the nearest village (population: 333), is the start of a trail through undeveloped state land—and a Little Free Library. I’d seen these take-one-leave-one birdhouses for books proliferate suddenly in my Chevy Chase neighborhood—three within as many blocks from me over the past few months. But my Labor Day sighting of an offshoot among a handful of houses at the edge of a forest brought home how much the phenomenon has shot from novelty to ubiquity.
Born in 2009 when Todd Bol erected a schoolhouse-shaped box of books in Hudson, Wisconsin, as tribute to his teacher mother, the idea spread slowly until in 2012 the homegrown nonprofit Little Free Library organization was thrilled to reach its goal of more than 2,500 ancillary athenaeums. Four years on, the tally is now 40,000, in every state and province in the US and Canada, and 70 other countries; the new goal is to top 100,000 by 2017. Bol has spent September traveling with a Little Free Library road show, sowing the seeds of new stations, finishing up with a booth and book-box building at the National Book Festival being held at the Walter E.Washington Convention Center on Saturday (September 24, 2016, 9am to 5pm at Expo Floor Booth #520; many other festival exhibits will be open until 10pm).
A very rough count on Little Free Library’s map suggests that within the Beltway alone there are close to 200 Little Free Libraries—indeed, local friends confirm having seen them pop up throughout DC neighborhoods like mushrooms in monsoon season. Even that total is not comprehensive; none of the three I pass daily appears on the map, for instance, nor does their North Woods sibling. Two of my neighboring branches have the official charter plaque with registration number, but builders can opt to leave their whereabouts off the map. The third, I realize upon closer inspection, would appear to be a rogue—nothing officially links it to Little Free Library. Does LFL frown upon such interlopers? “Oh no, not at all,” says Lynnea Chelstrom, communications assistant at LFL. “They are not allowed to use the Little Free Library name, but we are all for anything that encourages reading and book sharing.”
Becoming an official LFL “steward,” however, entitles you not only to signage, but also newsletters, book labels, press materials, offers of new and discounted books, plus a private Facebook group to share stories, suggestions and solutions to issues from condensation to fighting City Hall. (Yes, these delightful little boîtes of bonhomie have occasionally run afoul of zoning laws and attendant crackpots and busybodies [opinions expressed are my own and do not reflect blah blah]. Luckily, consequent public outcry has typically been swift, just and effective.)
Wannabe Little Free Librarians are generally bound by few rules, however. LFL offers helpful guidelines and cautions, but does not dictate size, placement or kinds of books, and requires only a $42-$77 (how fancy a sign do you want?) registration fee. You can buy kits or ready-made houses from them—including some (pricey) gems—but much of the fun seems to come from dreaming up your own. Some build a simple rustic shed; some labor lovingly over detailed doppelgangers; some clearly have a lot of fun (personal favorite here); and some think way outside the wooden box, making earth-friendly use of abandoned phone booths, newspaper vending machines, breadboxes, even dorm refrigerators (a trip-wire, no doubt, for those fussy neighbors). The LFL Flickr page and Pinterest boards have many hours’ worth of adorable, amusing, impressive, inspirational browsing. But since this is, in the end, about love of words and books, perhaps the perfect tour of Little Free Libraryland is via—what else?—the The Little Free Library Book, with plenty of photos of favorites, plus individuals’ stories, helpful instructions—an all-around introduction to the charming, caring/sharing worldwide literary community that Little Free Library is trying to build, box by box.