The “Little Free Library” concept started four years ago in the Midwest, when an entrepreneur named Todd Bol watched his neighbors gobble up books placed outside his home. Back then, he dreamed that 2,500 similar libraries would be constructed by 2014. He was naive. There are already more than 10,000.
In the District, the first recorded little library belongs to Vahab. He built it in January, thinking it might be an interesting experiment for the Meridian Hill neighborhood.
He purchased a small, wooden model of a house on the Web, stained it and hoisted it onto a pole. He staked it amid the lush, little garden he had created in a swale 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 the District, including near H Street and in Cleveland Park. They’re taking hold in close-in suburbs, too. The city of Hyattsville put book houses in city parks, hoping to inspire a new generation of book lovers. A man in Takoma Park is using online fundraising to build a dozen more. Residents of Arlington County and Alexandria have been planting book houses, too.
These rustic libraries offering ink-on-paper books are an archaic turn for the literary scene, as major bookstores close and public libraries march toward modernization. Of the 3.3 million books circulated in the District’s library system last year, data show that more than 255,000 were e-books — a 149 percent increase from 2012. The circulation of printed books fell 18 percent.
Those who have used the book houses say they offer simple joys: the thrill of an unexpected find, the abandonment of Dewey-Decimal stodginess and — most of all — the creation of a new community space.
Vahab, a 37-year-old orthodontist, is by no means a book lover. He 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 that they might also discover the community around them.
“I just thought it was a great way to get people in the neighborhood to interact so that we’d get to know each other better,” Vahab said this week near his book house. Then a neighbor interrupted him.
“Hey, there!” said Heidi Decker, a 42-year-old government worker. She told him about a book about Jewish history that she recently plucked from the stand.
“I didn’t even see that one!” Vahab said. Another person must have donated it.