Free Little Libraries take off in the East Bay.

Free Little Libraries take off in the East Bay.


At Luna’s Longstockings, Alameda

Zeitgeist: The Art of Sharing

Joanna Phoenix, 30, moved from Delaware to Berkeley in 2012. Her new neighborhood was friendly, but full of so many different kinds of people—young students, working adults, retirees—that she sometimes felt there wasn’t much that united them as a community. So she built a library in her front yard.

The little green wooden hut with a steepled, shingled roof still stands on a post in the front yard of the little green house on Woolsey Street. At first glance, it could just be a mailbox or a birdhouse, but, behind its Plexiglas door, it’s stuffed full of books. A little plaque explains what it is: “The Little Free Library—Take a Book, Leave a Book.”

Phoenix was inspired to build the mini-library in her front yard after reading a news article about the Little Free Library movement. Her library is one of nearly 20 such mini-libraries in the East Bay and one of an estimated 10,000 worldwide.

“It really spoke to me,” Phoenix says. “Generosity is a big belief of mine. There are a lot of stories about how we should be scared and skeptical of the world. The Little Free library is a good source of balance.”

She first stocked her library with whatever she was ready to get out of her own personal library—a mixture of fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, and personal growth titles—but the library soon took on a life of its own.

Phoenix didn’t often catch people as they borrowed books, but she always knew that they did: Old books would disappear from the library; new ones would appear to replace them. Occasionally, a neighbor would call to her, “Nice library!” as she went out to check her mail. And she would discover little hand-drawn cartoons taped to the front of the Library, doodles by a young neighborhood girl, detailing funny incidents in her life—like the time a bee stung her.

Recently, Phoenix moved out of her Woolsey Street home to resettle on Telegraph Avenue. The day that she moved out, she ran into an older woman at the library. Phoenix had seen the woman before; she traveled around the neighborhood with a grocery card collecting bottles and cardboard boxes for recycling. She was someone Phoenix had seen before, the sort of person that you’d smile at and say “hi” to but never have a long conversation. The woman told her that whenever she found discarded books on her route, she would bring them back for the Woolsey Library.

“I felt the invisible threads of community that we walk through everyday,” says Phoenix. “The library was a hub where the threads manifested.”

The Little Free Library movement started in Hudson, Wis., in 2010, when local Todd Bol built a tiny wooden schoolhouse on his front lawn as a tribute to his mother. Bol filled the schoolhouse with books and encouraged neighbors to borrow any that captured their fancy. The idea soon spread throughout the city, as other booklovers began erecting their own little free libraries. Soon, it had spread throughout the state, the country, and the world.

It’s less formal than a city or school library; patrons aren’t required to return the books they borrow. They can replace them with other books from their own private collections. They can return a borrowed book to a different library elsewhere. Or they may simply decide to pass the book on to another friend after they’ve finished reading it. Above all, the system is set up to encourage the sharing of books over the enforcement of any property rights, something that especially appeals to booklovers interested in spreading their favorite reads.

Nora Cody, 52, first heard about the library in an NPR news report and immediately got excited. She told her husband that all she wanted for her upcoming birthday was a little free library, so he got to work building it. Cody dedicated her library to the memory of her parents, Pat and Fred Cody, founders of Cody’s Books on Telegraph in Berkeley.

“My parents were huge library fans; books were a huge pat of their life,” says Cody. “My dad grew up in rural West Virginia; Mom was one of eight growing up in Connecticut. Books opened up the world to them. Mom used to say that you’re never alone if you have a book. I almost get panicky without a book—almost more important than having food. I thought it was a great way to spread books. Personally, I still like the feel of an actual book. Reading in bed at night isn’t the same with an electronic book.”

The Woolsey Street library is just big enough to house about a dozen books—everything from a battered German translation of The Mists of Avalon to dog-eared copies of Naked Lunch and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry to contemporary young adult novels like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Lightning Thief. The books have seen better days, their pages yellowed and smudged, spines broken. They’ve been passed around from person to person, possibly through dozens of hands and who knows how many libraries before landing here.

“A few days after we built it, the library was completely full of book donations,” says Phoenix. “A few days later and it had emptied. A 10-day turnover, and it’s full again. After six months, the library was empty for a day or two, and I thought that maybe the novelty has worn off, but then it filled back up again.”

Joe Hellerstein, 45, brought the Little Free Library concept to the East Bay. A computer science professor at UC Berkeley, Hellerstein is a Madison, Wisc., native. When he traveled home to visit his parents last year in 2012, he noticed Little Free Libraries standing on almost every street corner; being so close to the movement’s epicenter, the library phenomena had become a local fad. He thought that setting up a library at his home in Berkeley would be a good way to pay tribute to his hometown.

“The East Bay is a very literary community and has a great library system, but that’s also true of Madison,” says Hellerstein. “That seems to be where it catches on.”

Hellerstein was the first official library in the east bay in April 2012. Since then, nearly 20 little free libraries have appeared in the area, including four in Alameda—at 1242 Park St., 1816 Wood St., 1024 Taylor Ave., and 2211 Fulton Lane—and five in Oakland. By the start of 2013, there were estimated to be between 5,000 to 6,000 Little Free Libraries in more than 40 countries worldwide. After building a Little Free Library, you can register as your library’s “steward” at the Little Free Library website and get it listed on a world-wide map of libraries. The website also posts instructions for building your library, although many creative stewards choose to put their own twist on their libraries. (Hellerstein repurposed his from a funky cabinet he found at Urban Ore salvage yard.)

Some stewards do occasional maintenance of their libraries, weeding out books that have sat idle on the shelf for months without attracting patrons’ interest or throwing away advertisements stuffed into the library. Others prefer to let the library grow organically, letting the community decide which books should stay or go. And many stewards have grown to trust the wisdom of the community.

Andrea Arguelles, 30, built a Little Free Library in front of her Glen Street home in Oakland with the help of her niece Evie, 12, and nephew, Sergio, 9, over one weekend. Glen is a little curving street behind the Piedmont Avenue shopping district in Oakland, just a block from used book store Book Zoo and magazine store Issues. It’s a bookish neighborhood with a lot of foot traffic, so Arguelles thought it would be the perfect place to start a Little Free Library.

“My brother has done well for himself, so his kids don’t want for much—they have iPads and iPhones and everything,” says Arguelles, 30, an architectural designer from Oakland. “But if you ask them what they’re the most proud of, they say the library because they built it from scratch. Even though they knew they wouldn’t get to see it being used, even though it wasn’t theirs, that didn’t matter to them. Kids are still curious for that basic drive to create.”

Arguelles has since moved away, but the little rainbow-colored hut is still there, festooned with Tibetan prayer flags and nestled snugly amongst the thick front yard ferns. Currently, the library is picked bare: Only a Japanese language issue of GQ and a single book (Seasons of Our Joy: A Handbook of Jewish Festivals). But Arguelles has seen it happen before, and she knows the library has a habit of refilling just when it seems to be running out of steam.

“Every so often, I still peek in to see how it’s doing,” says Arguelles. “But I didn’t want to be involved with how it evolved. It never belonged to me; it was something that was always part of the community. I thought people might use it to get rid of the cheap books they didn’t want, but I find that people put in good, high-quality, expensive books.”

Occasionally, people do use the libraries as a dumping ground for unwanted books—Hellerstein discovered a pile of discarded medical textbooks from the 1970s. But by and large, stewards say their neighborhoods have rallied around the libraries.

“One time I saw a truck pull up, and someone emptied out the whole library,” says Phoenix. “I thought they maybe took them to sell at a flea market. I was sad at first, but then I realized that, whatever their reason, they cleaned out books that had been in there too long and created space for new ones to fill. Every time I second-guess the library, it proves me wrong.”

Even so, Little Free Libraries aren’t community hubs. Stewards say that they don’t usually forge new friendships through their libraries; they rarely catch people as they’re checking out books and, when they do, conversations are usually cordial but brief. But even if they don’t see library patrons much, they still feel their presence. When the door fell off of Arguelles’ library one day, an anonymous benefactor fixed it. And when Phoenix noticed that the books in her library were becoming jumbled, she made a mental note to get it organized later that day. But before she could, she found that a stranger had beaten her to it.

“My husband and I say that the library fairies came to fix it,” Phoenix says. “It’s a constant, little reminder of the generosity in people. The library provided less of a grand reveal about the world, and more of an everyday reminder of all the goodness out there.”

Build or Buy

You can build a Little Free Library from anything from scrap metal to old orange crates, but, if you don’t trust yourself around a hammer and nails, you can also order pre-made libraries from the official Little Free Library website at Pre-made libraries range from $160 to $600; shipping is only available in the United States and Canada.

This article appears in the January-February 2014 issue of Oakland Magazine

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