Asheville’s Little Free Libraries make a big community impact

CHOICE WORDS: Members of the Shiloh community with their recently installed Little Free Library. Photo courtesy of Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity
CHOICE WORDS: Members of the Shiloh community with their recently installed Little Free Library. Photo courtesy of Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity

Reading is fundamental — we all know that. The catchphrase is also the name of the oldest and largest nonprofit literacy organization in the country, an endeavor that began with the donation of a bag of used books.

But who knew that sharing a few used books could also build community, bring neighbors together, inspire youths, encourage fitness and spark recycling efforts? Fans of Little Free Libraries knew, that’s who.

In July, the Shiloh Community Association dedicated and installed in its community garden a Little Free Library — a structure the size of a large birdhouse and stocked with books that can be borrowed, shared and restocked by any interested reader. “A friend of mine and I had thought about this for a while,” says Anita White, the association’s leader. Shiloh was undergoing a pedestrian assessment study, and among the suggestions to increase walkability was a Little Free Library.

Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity collaborated on the project. Longtime Habitat volunteer Charlie Franck had already built a library, which he passed along to friends since he didn’t have a space to install it. Franck still gets reports on that first construction, now located on Macon Avenue — it’s being stocked with CDs as well as reading material. “I thought it would be a good community service project,” says Franck, who favors low-end workshop projects. He agreed to build a library for Shiloh, using materials salvaged from the Habitat ReStore. The shop’s sales manager, Susan Haynes, donated an initial collection of books.

During the summer, two churches in Shiloh incorporated the Little Free Library into their youth programs. “What concerns me is getting the right mix of titles,” says White. “Young adult titles are moving fast. There’s no easy way for kids who don’t drive yet to get to a public library from Shiloh.”

The books are also attracting adults, who are making it a destination on their neighborhood walks. “My hope is that it will generate an exchange of ideas and some good community interaction,” says White. “I think it’s a movement that will grow. I’ve had relatives in from out of town, and a couple of them are going back to their neighborhoods and churches and starting [Little Free Libraries].”

The idea is already a global movement. The first mini-library was built by Todd Bol in Hudson, Wis., modeled after a one-room schoolhouse. He stocked it with books and placed it in his yard (like a birdhouse or a mailbox) so his neighbors could help themselves. That was in 2009.

Today, there are Little Free Libraries in the Netherlands, Honduras and Ghana, among other locales. Now a nonprofit organization, Little Free Library aimed to build 2,510 book exchanges, matching the number of full-sized libraries supported by the late industrialist Andrew Carnegie. That goal was quickly surpassed and, according to littlefreelibrary.org, “By January of 2014, the total number of registered Little Free Libraries in the world was conservatively estimated to be nearly 15,000, with thousands more being built.”

That a so community-minded endeavor has found a toehold in and around Asheville is no surprise. There are Little Free Libraries registered in Hendersonville and West Asheville, and for each one listed on the organization’s searchable world map, there are more unregistered libraries that serve the same purpose. “There is an understanding that real people are sharing their favorite books with their community,” says the website. “These aren’t just any old books; this is a carefully curated collection and the library itself is a piece of neighborhood art.”

When Stephen Griffin and his family made the move from San Francisco to Asheville, their house in Montford came with a bonus in the front yard — a miniature book dispensary, complete with a charter number designating it an official Little Free Library. Griffin’s wife, Abigail, a writer, was excited to stock it. “The more people who know it’s an exchange, the better,” says Stephen. Sometimes the Griffins find religious tracks and food pamphlets left in the library — “Books about religion or food would be better,” Stephen says. How it works, ideally, is that passers-by drop off books they’ve read and pick up new titles that pique their interest. All subject matter (along with CDs and DVDs) is fair game for the communal trade system.

Stephen’s enthusiasm for the project is clear: Since the family includes three children, the couple built a kids library that is located beside the original cupola-topped structure, at a kid-accessible level.

Geoffrey Rollins, who lives in the Five Points neighborhood, is also at work on a multigenerational library. “Mine is going to be a two-level. Adult books on top, and children’s on the lower level,” he says. His son and daughter are regulars at Pack Memorial Library’s story time — “Now we have a Little Free Library on our street and another one coming,” he says. “I think it will get kids excited about reading.”

To add a personal touch, Rollins is constructing his with cypress wood from his family’s farm in Mississippi. Those who are interested in the project but don’t have the time or skills to create a Little Free Library can order a kit or pre-constructed model from littlefreelibrary.org. Unlike the books they hold, though, these buildings are far from free — prices run from $200-$800.

Rollins learned about the project through a Parkway Forest meeting. Greta Bush, co-president of that community’s neighborhood association, says Parkway Forest is in the early stages of installing its own group of libraries. A testament to the movement’s popularity: “I’ve got five households that are interested, but that’s too many for our neighborhood,” says Bush. She also works at Habitat, as communications coordinator. Franck has offered to construct one for the group, “and I had in my head a Little Free Library building party — a community building event.”

Bush sees the book exchanges as a way to get neighbors out of their houses and talking to each other, hence her plan to place them strategically. One neighbor works at Malaprop’s Bookstore and already has ideas about what books to stock. The project is especially meaningful to Bush, who is a first-time homeowner. “I’ve always heard about building community and what it means, but I’ve never gotten to experience it,” she says. “I wanted to feed that with a project.”

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

2 thoughts on “Asheville’s Little Free Libraries make a big community impact

  1. Alli,
    What a gift! I was just beginning to finish up a white paper of sorts to describe the impact of Little Free Libraries for our website and an annual report…and you have covered most of the key points beautifully. When Todd and I began exploring the potential of neighborhood book exchanges beyond the one in his front yard, the more we listened to other people, the greater the potential seemed to be. The “Because It’s Small” video and a lovely YouTube piece called “A Small Wooden Box” show how these little boxes of books have affected people in ways even more profoundly than we first imagined. Your story in the Mountain Xpress offers some wonderful details. Would you mind if we linked to it in our blog? The anthropologist in me suggests that the insights you present are definitely worth sharing. As co-founder (and now “retired” ambassador for Little Free Library) I want to thank you for such coverage. Of the thousands of stories about Little Free Library stewards, yours is one of the best.
    P.S. Let Greta Bush know that five Little Libraries probably isn’t too many for one neighborhood. We have close to two dozen within 1/4 mile of my house and the popularity is increasing all the time. I just visited a neighborhood in Seattle with even more than that!

  2. flavio thoth

    Nice piece Alli. When we moved into East Asheville, we put up a little bench for the neighborhood walkers and midnight teens to rest upon, so this has inspired us to add a wee library. Since we live in a temperate rain forest, what to do about keeping books mold-free? Plastic baggies? I’ve lost more than a few book in basements hereabouts.

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