For more than a decade, Sharalee Armitage Howard watched in dismay as the grand cottonwood tree in front of her Idaho home plopped dead branches on her flower gardens and sidewalk.
Then came the last straw: a large branch from the dying, 110-year-old tree tumbled onto her son’s car, causing several hundred dollars in damage.
It was time to cut it down before it toppled in a storm.
But Howard, a book lover who works at her local library in Coeur d’Alene, felt an attachment to the tree. She wanted to give it a new life. She had no idea her creation would not only become the talk of her neighborhood, it would fly across the Internet on social media, reaching people around the world.
Howard designed a Pinterest-worthy Little Free Library that is so delightful it looks like the home of a family of magical elves. The converted stump-turned-book-offering is complete with stone steps leading to a tiny glass French door, a hanging lantern, shelves and a peaked roof. The top of the door is dotted with tiny wooden replicas of books such as “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Nancy Drew” and “Little Women.”
When Howard posted a photo of her creation on Facebook in December, it raced around social media as people shared it more than 100,000 times and left more than 13,000 comments. And the comments are still coming in as people discover her charming tiny book chalet:
“What!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” wrote a woman in Maryland.
“Don't be surprised when some elves move in!” wrote a man in Arkansas.
“It's a portal to another world on so many levels! Cheers to you and thank you for making the world a little more delightful!” commented a woman in New York.
Howard figured her “little tree library” — as some now call it — would be eye-catching, but she didn’t expect such a huge response.
“I’m shocked at how many people I’ve heard from these past several months,” said Howard, a 42-year-old mother of four. “It’s really caught on, maybe because it crosses over into a lot of different passions: nature, books, libraries and people who just appreciate community projects.”
She has hundreds of regular book visitors and a continual turnover of titles. So much so that her family hasn’t had to stock the shelves with volumes of their own since it opened in December with several dozen books.
Howard recalled the sad day in October when she and her husband, Jamie Howard, paid about $5,000 for a tree removal company to slowly take down their dying cottonwood one section at a time over two days.
"I really hated to get rid of that tree — it had such curb appeal,” she said. “But the core had been rotting for years. When it came time to hollow out the stump for my library, all we had to do was reach in and pull out the soft insides."
Envisioning what the stump would become helped make it easier to see the tree hauled away in pieces, said Howard. She decided on a Little Free Library, she said, after she made one for a school fundraising auction (with a different design) two years ago and then concluded she wanted one for herself.
Howard settled on the design after sketching out a few ideas, and she decided to have the stump cut in the shape of a house with a peaked roof.
Once the interior was cleaned out, she had stone steps installed and the roof was covered with cedar shingles. Then she added some bookshelves and ordered an antique glass window for the door on eBay. A neighbor offered his skills as an electrician and installed a light, then Howard and her kids made some small wooden books to use as molding.
Now that it’s up and running, it’s mostly self-sustaining. Other than straightening the books so the spines face outward, she pretty much leaves the library alone.
"It's interesting to see what kind of books people add to the shelves,” she said. “I love that even the most obscure titles end up in somebody's hands.”
Howard’s Little Free Library joined a network of more than 80,000 of them across the United States and 91 countries.
The first Little Free Library was built by the late Todd Bol in Hudson, Wis., in 2009, according to Margret Aldrich, a spokeswoman for the Little Free Library nonprofit organization. The tiny libraries all operate with a common principle: “Take a book, return a book.”
Aldrich said she’s seen libraries resembling rocket ships, Victorian mansions and Volkswagen minibuses, but Howard’s tree library has raised the “wow” factor.
"We love every detail of it, from the inviting green door to the warm lighting inside and out,” she said. “Sharalee has created a truly magical experience that will inspire readers of all ages. She went above and beyond with her not-so-little cottonwood tree library."
Howard said the final touch will be picking a name and attaching a sign to her mini book haven. She has a leading candidate.
"I’m thinking of calling it 'A Street Branch,’ ” she said, a nod to her library’s roots. “I like to think that most people will get it.”