BY JARRETT VAN METER
One of the few silver linings in a generally devastating pandemic is the significant expansion of “free” time to accomplish personal goals. In the last 10 days I’ve read more books (two) than I had in all of 2020 up till then (one). Hardly an impressive total, but enough to illustrate my point: Now is as good a time as ever to get reading.
The glaring and immediate roadblock to pursuing this goal is the fact that both libraries and bookstores are closed due to COVID-19. Orders can be placed online, but aspiring readers can no longer cruise the aisles, perusing books pulled off shelves in search of the perfect fit.
Now, however, after years of patiently waiting their turn through the rain and the snow, local take-one/leave-one libraries are ready to rise to the occasion and seize their moment in the — well, still mostly in the rain.
Little Free Library, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit, has become synonymous with the global book-sharing movement. According to the interactive map on the nonprofit’s website, there are dozens of Little Free Libraries in Asheville alone, and the group claims 100,000 worldwide. Built, paid for and maintained by local community members, often in their own front yard, these “libraries” often take the form of a small wooden box on a pedestal, with a glass door allowing access to the donated contents. The nonprofit sells several different models, both preassembled and as kits.
Establishing a Little Library is easy. If you bought it from the nonprofit, it’s automatically registered; if you opted to use your own design, you can register it on its website. After that, there are no fees or keys or combinations required, as it’s all done on the honor system: You take one, you leave one. And meanwhile, it gives people 24/7 access to books.
Because the system relies on hyperlocal community exchange, the selection varies both by day and by location. I recently decided to tour a cluster of West Asheville sites to gauge available offerings amid the commercial dearth. With rubber-gloved hands I picked through such choices as John Green’s Paper Towns and An Abundance of Katherines, a Holy Bible and Dick Vitale’s eponymous Vitale at the Virginia Avenue box. The Allen Street branch offered Eckhart Tolle’s Practicing the Power of Now, a Herman Melville anthology and a copy of Romeo and Juliet (that’d be William Shakespeare).
A converted newspaper vending machine on Blue Ridge Avenue, which serves as the hub for my neighborhood, is where I picked up my current read, Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism. Not only did my wallet remain in my pocket, but the one, two, three hours I would have spent waffling amid a labyrinth of competing titles was instead allocated to actually reading one.
Now more than ever
Of course, the safety measures that are required at the grocery store and at work also apply here: Wear gloves, use hand sanitizer and wipe down the book you take with disinfectant. Linda-Marie Barrett, assistant executive director of the Asheville-based Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, is the steward of a Little Free Library at 51 Pleasant Ridge Drive. In a nod to the necessary precautions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Barrett taped a list of new guidelines to the window of the Pleasant Ridge location, instructing patrons not only to sanitize their hands after using it but also to keep any book they take rather than returning it, and to refrain from donating any new ones (Barrett keeps the box stocked herself with new and popular titles).
“I’ve always dreamed of owning and curating a library,” she wrote in an email. “Having access to reading material has never been so important. Reading transports, educates and offers escape. Free libraries make reading available to everyone, regardless of ability to pay. I am passionate about making books available to our community of readers, especially during a time that is so stressful.”
Being stuck at home doesn’t have to mean personal regression. So why not press pause on the remote and go pick up a free book? Just remember to wear gloves and bring a wipe.
Jarrett Van Meter is a writer who lives in Asheville. For more information about how to build and set up a Little Library, go to littlefreelibrary.org. To find all the local ones, type “Asheville NC” in the interactive map on the website.