Take a Book, Leave a Book: Alameda’s Little Free Libraries

Take a Book, Leave a Book: Alameda’s Little Free Libraries

Kristen Hanlon

Photos by Kristen Hanlon.

Tucked away among a row of homes in Bayport, on a stretch of green courtyard that doesn’t see much in the way of pedestrian traffic, sits a cream-and-terracotta box atop a short steel pole. Inside the box is an eclectic array of books - crime novels, children’s books, how-to manuals, and self-help are stacked side-by-side. Adjacent to the box is a child’s chair, painted to match the box, which provides the opportunity for pint-sized passers-by to sit and read.

This little library in front of Kristy Gray’s home at 2211 Fulton Lane is part of worldwide movement begun a few years ago by a Wisconsin man, Todd Bol. What started as a tribute to his bibliophile mother has now spread to all 50 states and at least 36 countries. Stewards in the Little Free Library movement have repurposed phone booths, birdhouses, vending machines and bus shelters, built their own library boxes from scratch, or ordered library kits online from Bol’s nonprofit organization. Once installed, stewards can choose to register their library through the Little Free Library organization for a small fee. In return, a steward receives a plaque to mount on their box listing their charter number, and the GPS coordinates of their library are placed on an online map.

Gray was inspired by her parents, who built their own Little Free Library at their home in Santa Paula last year. “I just became obsessed with having my own, I thought it was the cutest idea," she said. "I told my dad I wanted one for Christmas. So he built me one, and it’s great because I love the fact that the neighborhood kids come around, and my kids love running out to check and see if there are any new books in it.

Gray said her library sees random people coming by to leave donations, "but we have some regulars, too. She said a father and daughter come by every Saturday to drop off books.

"It’s part of their weekend routine now,” Gray said.

At first, she said, some people were unclear on the concept of taking a book and leaving a book behind - which led to a dearth of books. After some initial publicity, the donations started coming in.

“People have been really generous," Gray said. "We’ve been getting all kinds of books, from murder mysteries to how-to manuals.”

Laughing, Gray added, “Of course, we get some stuff that nobody wants, like a 1988 road atlas.”

So far, the Bayport Homeowners Association hasn’t complained about her library. “Well, there’s a family in the neighborhood who have two giant ceramic cats in their front garden, so I figure if that’s okay, surely my little library is fine,” she said.

A couple of miles away, in a different West End neighborhood, another Little Free Library peeks out between flowering shrubs in front of the Grijalva home at 1024 Taylor Avenue. Made from salvaged redwood, it blends in so well with its surroundings that it’s possible to walk by and not notice it. Erik Grijalva notes his goal was to “only use materials that I had left over from previous building and remodeling projects. I wanted it to be weatherproof, have two deep shelves, have some rustic style, and not be so involved that I would be heartbroken if it got vandalized one night.”

Repurposed materials incorporated in the design include weathered tongue-in-groove redwood fencing from an old fence and leftover cedar shingles. Grijalva said he used some Plexiglas from an art project on the library's door, along with an assortment of nails, screws and flashing to hold things together. He used a Dremel tool to inscribe the Little Free Library motto on the door, and his wife, Lainie, painted the lettering with an old red paint sample.

"I wound up buying some recessed cabinet hinges for the door and a 4x4 redwood post for mounting the finished box," Grijalva said. "All told, I think we spent about five hours building it at a cost of around $20. Great fun, and my then- 2-year-old daughter Ariana helped throughout.”

Grijalva was drawn to the Little Free Library movement because it “fit into a number of thoughts I'd had on fostering connections on our block and neighborhood."

"I've often lamented that every house on a given block is likely to have an identical suite of often expensive and rarely used things like tools, toys, cars or books; each house having their own, rather than a shared 'library' of these items for the neighborhood to use at need," he said. "I thought the LFL would be a fun and easy experiment in that regard.”

The neighborhood response to the little library was immediate, said Grijalva. “Folks were taking and putting in books from day one, and I had to make a rule for myself that I'd only take one book at a time from the library - there were so many good ones!"

Grijalva said he looks almost every day to see what new books are in his library, but he doesn't manage the offerings that much as it seems to manage itself. He has a rule barring solicitations - people have left Avon catalogs and the Watchtower magazine distributed by Jehovah's Witnesses - and when they show up, he removes them. Like the one on Fulton Lane, the Taylor Avenue book selection runs the gamut.

“We've got science fiction, self-help, comedy, biography, classics, books in Arabic, kids and teen books, classics, poetry, how-to and any number of things on any given day," he said. "We regularly run into folks perusing the 'stacks.' It’s great fun and a great way to meet your neighbors. But there are many more people using the library than we've met, given the turnover in books.”

For those who are thinking of becoming stewards of their own Little Free Library, Grijalva has some advice: Don't make it so complicated that you decide not to do it.

"I've had folks ask me about the actual building of the thing and seem intimidated," he said. "The kits sold on the LFL website are not cheap, but that is one way to go."

He said the library needs only to be weatherproof, and he suggested stewards build something that's not permanent.

"First, you may not have a rousing response to it, and it will either be empty or unused - though that is not my experience, I've heard of others where that was the case," Grijalva said. "Secondly, if it gets damaged or vandalized you can remove it easily and replace it."

Grijalva's last piece of advice: Spread the word about your new library.

"Tell folks about it," he said. "It's unlikely to get used if folks don't know what it is.”

You can learn more about the Little Free Library organization at http://www.littlefreelibrary.org.


Donna Eyestone's picture
Submitted by Donna Eyestone on Tue, Mar 26, 2013

I love these! I've been thinking of them as mini-parklets -- and I hope that we'll be able to spring one of these up in our parklet when the time comes! Beautiful work!