Little Free Libraries

When Vancouver’s public libraries abruptly closed their doors as part of March’s Covid lockdown, my book-addicted family was suddenly forced to go cold turkey. Hallelujah for Little Free Libraries, which have sprouted all over town in the last few years.

As the lockdown dragged on and we all got sick of hearing each other’s audiobooks playing in the next room — who is she talking to? Oh, it’s William Hurt reading Ernest Hemingway / Jack and Annie from the Magic Treehouse / the cats from Warriors — I began taking my kids out on bike tours of the neighbourhood, trawling for good reads.

We slowly learned which libraries had the best pickings and the fastest turnover. Now we have a circuit we follow, a looping trajectory that takes us to five rich reading sources in half an hour. We come home sweaty and elated, showing off the latest discoveries.

Entrepreneur Todd Bol created the first Little Free Library in Hudson, Wisconsin in 2009, to celebrate his book-loving mother, who had just died. He carved wood from an old garage door into a mini, one-room schoolhouse, then set it up on a pole in front of his house and filled it with books. Passersby were asked to “Take a book, leave a book,” and they did. The movement, which became a nonprofit in 2012, spread fast; Bol’s original aim was to create 2,510 libraries, more than Andrew Carnegie; there are now more than 100,000, in 91 countries.

One of the many joys of working in publishing is free books. The salaries are pitiful, the wait for that prized promotion eternal — but the people are great and you receive lots of free books, which I’ve always loved to pass on. My mother, an ardent reader like Todd Bol’s mother, has never complained of all the birthday and Christmas presents with “Advance Reading Copy — Not For Sale” stamped on the spine.

Like many book lovers, I grapple endlessly with all the books I haven’t read yet, piling up by my bed and crammed into the bookshelves in every nook of the house. So Covid seemed made for “Take a book, leave a book.” Time to clear out the shelves and give away some great books that I’ve already read, or will never read, or that aren’t, truly, quite as great as the gripping copy on the front flap (which I may have written) claims.

Except I almost always end up taking more books than I leave. And having to find more space in those crammed shelves for more volumes I’ll probably never read.

Little Free Libraries are a fascinating window into the reading habits of your neighbours. A lot of airport reads, naturally: romance, mystery, crime, mostly well-thumbed and ruthlessly discarded. Computer manuals, academic tomes, travel guides, all worth reading once, all surely doomed to

never be re-read. And a surprising amount of CanLit, oversized B-format paperbacks with worthy endorsements, often pristine, i.e., bought with good intentions but never cracked (I ask myself the same question; should I read last year’s Giller shortlist? Really?).

Every trip I stumble upon wonderful books. My first discovery was “The Sisters,” Mary S. Lovell’s fascinating joint biography of the six extraordinary Mitford sisters. Minor aristocrats, the sparkling siblings took 1930s’ British society by storm — until two of them fell in love with Hitler and became pariahs (Diane spent most of the war in prison; Unity shot herself when war was declared). Nancy wrote bestselling comedies of manners that seem Cretaceous today; thank god for Jessica, a lifelong leftie who satirized her adopted home in exposés like The American Way of Death. Six hundred gossipy pages got me through the first month of quarantine.

By the time May rolled around I was deep into Music: A Subversive History by Ted Gioia and re-reading Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, with the ITV characters in my head. Marvelling that someone had left Vera Cacciatore’s The Swing — who doesn’t judge a book by its cover? — and trying to believe in Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight. Except that time was now passing very slowly, and I wasn’t finishing any books. Just refining my bookshelves, like that (apocryphal?) purser rearranging the deckchairs on The Titanic.

By the time I stumbled into July all I was good for was Louis L’Amour, “the world’s bestselling Western writer.” I won’t defend him — there’s a PhD on settler colonialism in every pulpy volume — but I do love his author bio, which mentions no awards but 40 million books sold and the fact that “since leaving his native Jamestown, North Dakota, at the age of fifteen, he’s been a longshoreman, lumberjack, elephant handler, hay shocker, flume builder, fruit picker, and an officer on tank destroyers during World War II.” Note to self: publish more ex-elephant handlers. And how do you shock hay — with an elephant?

(Answer: no, you use string)

Scott Steedman

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