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Little Free Libraries

Swapping books with neighbors

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Olga McLaren

Retired school teacher Olga McLaren asked for a Little Free Library for her birthday two years ago. She has since added a second. One is for adult books, the other for children's books. (Photo: Theron McLaren)

It’s a simple idea: Set up a weatherproof cabinet outside, decorate it if you’re feeling creative, stock it with books you’re giving away, and put a sign on it that it’s a free book exchange.

Todd Bol did just that in 2009 in Wisconsin, kicking off the modern Little Free Library movement. These days, Little Free Libraries, whose motto is “Take a book, leave a book,” have a nonprofit organization with an interactive, online map of all the known Little Free Libraries in the world. As of January 2016, there were over 36,000 of them. Houston has more than 40.

Rebecca Kroger, a senior at Memorial High School, built three her freshman year for her Girl Scout Gold Award Project: one at Bethany House, for the homeless, in Laredo, one at Spring Branch Middle School (1000 Piney Point Road) and one at The Branch, the Spanish-language ministry of Chapelwood United Methodist Church (3911 Campbell Road). Ken Caughron, 93, built one run by his retirement community, Brazos Towers at Bayou Manor, and St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church (8915 Timberside).

Local “stewards,” who keep the libraries maintained and stocked, include professional writers. Chris Cander, novelist, screenwriter and children’s-book author, watches over the one at Colonial Park (on Byron) in West U, while Harriet Riley, whose library is in front of her house on Boheme Drive in Memorial, is a writer who teaches with Writers in the Schools and keeps a blog about books (wordsplusideas.blogspot.com).

Olga McLaren taught kindergarten and first grade for 42 years at St. John’s School and keeps two in front of her house (on Lana Lane), one for children and one for adults. Kris Taylor, steward for the one at her church, Emerson Unitarian Universalist (1900 Bering), teaches public-relations writing at the University of Houston.

Susan Cooley, a nurse-practitioner who brought a national literacy program, Reach Out and Read, to pediatric clinics in Texas, had the idea of installing a Little Free Library as part of the recent renovation of River Oaks Park (3600 Locke Lane).

Memorial High School (935 Echo Lane) also has one, courtesy of its student book club. Sherri Boyd, history teacher and club advisor, is its steward. “It’s pretty easy for me,” she says. The Little Free Library is less than 150 feet from her classroom. “And I have access to 200 kids. I just put a note on the board when we need books.” Students often stick their heads into her classroom to tell her when it’s running low, Boyd says.

Adam Goldberg put one in front of his house (on Merlin Drive) when he moved in. “We wanted to get to know our neighbors,” he says.

Little Free Library people are, of course, book lovers. “Except for when I buy books for my two book clubs, I never, ever buy a book now. I can just grab one from my Little Free Library,” says Nancy Schaaf, whose library is in front of her house (on Vassar).

One charm is the serendipity: You never know what you might find. A neighbor once told McLaren she had “a bad book” in hers. It was 50 Shades of Grey, a best-selling erotic novel. What did McLaren do? “I read it,” she says, with a mischievous smile.

Local stewards tend to remove only “slow sellers,” books that have been in their library for a long time, or books they know no one will want. (“Like that economics textbook from the 1970s someone just wanted to get rid of,” says one.)

Having your own is not difficult. You don’t even have to build it. You can buy pre-built ones, for $150-500, from littlefreelibrary.org. Most can hold about 40 books.

The Little Free Library at Colonial Pool was professionally built and looks like West University Elementary School. It’s the first in a series of six, all to look like neighborhood landmarks, that novelist Cander, in partnership with West U Parks and Recreation, has planned. (See westutx.gov/464/Little-Free-Libraries.)

The idea is that a Little Free Library will become self-sustaining, as neighbors begin to donate their own books. Taylor says she spends only about 30 minutes total a month, straightening up and switching out books.

Some add amenities. Hans Ludwig, who stewards the one outside his workplace (on Shadyvilla Lane), added a motion light and – a hint to dog walkers – a plastic-bag dispenser. Others have installed benches. Some put notebooks inside for comments.

“The best,” says Cander, “was when I was walking by on the track at Colonial Park and a sweetheart group of kids excitedly called to me, ‘Hey! Guess what? You can get free books here!’’’

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