The ‘Little Free Library’ arrives in the D.C. area


Neighborhood children browse Linda Greensfelders' free library on Sept., 19 in Washington. From left to right are Felix Trask, 3, and his mom, Christine Carroll. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
September 20, 2013

Philip Vahab loves it when strangers wander to the odd, wooden box outside his Northwest Washington rowhouse. Is it a birdhouse? Is it a fancy mailbox? Some ornamental, neighborhood talking point?

No. No. And kind of. The box is stuffed with paperbacks from Dean Koontz and Don DeLillo, free for the taking. Borrowers can return them — if they want — or trade them for a different book. At first blush, it might seem quaint. But the book house is a part of a burgeoning global literary movement just now taking root in the region.

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.

“I got there before you did,” Decker said. “I’ll return it.”

Few people return the books. That suits the stewards just fine. After Vahab put his first dozen random books there, neighbors replenished the stock by donating ones of their own.

“None of us have front porches, so this is the way we get to interact,” Decker said.

Neighborhoods have varying sensibilities. The classics stay for a bit in Meridian Hill, but the self-help books go quickly. Few in Cleveland Park pick up the self-help books, but children’s books are always in high demand. In Alexandria, there isn’t much teen fiction. And in Berwyn Heights, readers seem to be a little more highbrow: The romance novels and the mass-market mysteries often linger.

Everywhere in the region, 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 near H Street.

Apparently, everyone loves a new recipe.

Bol cooked up the idea of the little free library in Hudson, Wis., in 2009. He was looking for a way to honor the generous nature of his mother, who had recently died. He created a model schoolhouse and stuffed it with books beloved by his parents, starting with Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation.” He put up a sign that said, “Free Books.”

His neighbors cooed.

“I’ve always been enthralled by how when a little puppy or kitty walks into a room and the toughest guys can start to be gentle,’’ said Bol, now 57. “I put up my library and noticed my neighbors talking to it like it was a little puppy. And I realized 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.

Bol’s neighbors set up their own book houses. A friend took the concept to Madison, where it spread. Before long, he was featured on a local radio show. Then on the “NBC Nightly News.”

Then came calls from people interested in building their own libraries in places including Pakistan and Ukraine.

People asked for book houses, so he started a nonprofit group and hired former convicts to help him build them. At least 3,000 were planted throughout the world before the small libraries started sprouting in the Washington region.

No one is sure why book-sharing didn’t catch on quicker in the uber-educated, bike-share- loving District. Steven, of the H Street neighborhood, said she thinks that more will emerge as neighborhoods are redeveloped.

Vahab said his neighbors’ chief concern was whether this venture is legal. No one has stopped him, though. His biggest concern? Whether anyone would vandalize the book house? So far, no one has.

“I was surprised that there were none here, because it’s such an urban area,’’ said Pamela Becker, who moved with her husband and two daughters to Arlington from State College, Pa., where she lived near a little library. “So I decided I was going to build one myself.”

Since her book house’s opening in June, Becker’s library has been so successful that she has lost track of how many books have been donated. Probably at least a hundred, she thinks.

Linnea Dodson, who planted a book house in Berwyn Heights that resembles a British tollbooth (a homage to British literature), said she has received notes of appreciation.

“Thanks so much!” one read. “This reminds me that there is good in the world.”

For Linda Greensfelder, a retired school nurse who lives in Cleveland Park, the greatest joy happens twice every weekday. It is when she catches glimpses of a mother and her 5- year-old son, going to and from school. He can’t go past the block without stopping by the little book house, looking for his next adventure.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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