47: Little Free Libraries

47: Little Free Libraries

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less


Little Free Libraries

I think of life as a good book. The further you get into it, the more it begins to make sense.

~Harold Kushner

As a professional writer, I can’t afford a lot of stuff, so I don’t buy a lot of stuff. Anyway, where would I put it? I live in a one-bedroom apartment. I acquire only what is necessary and keep only what I use. There’s no space for more.

However, I started my career submitting fiction to short story anthologies, and every time my work was published I received contributor copies of those books. After years of prolific authorship, I amassed boxes of books.

Then I read Stephen King’s On Writing and it got me thinking. He suggests editing out ten percent of whatever you write — your novel, short story, whatever it may be. Ten percent of what you’ve written is unnecessary. This may not be true for everyone, but I’d always been a wordy writer. Cuts improve content.

I started looking around my apartment and wondering if the same might be true for books themselves. It’s hard to see books as stuff — they’re so much more. There are whole other worlds inside their pages.

Even so, my bookshelf was overrun with fiction I’d purchased at library fundraisers or picked out of people’s garbage. I kept books I had read. I kept books I hadn’t read. I kept books I’d gotten bored with after the first few chapters. I’d kept every book I bought in university, some of which I’d never cracked because the professor changed the course syllabus — and some of which I’d never cracked because, let’s face it, I wasn’t the world’s greatest student.

So, in addition to multiple copies of anthologies that featured my writing, I owned shelves of books I didn’t “need,” in the strictest sense of the word. Though I’d managed to pare the rest of my life down to just the essentials, I had this ever-growing mountain of books around me.

But that made sense… because I was a writer. Right?

I knew I could donate books to the local library and they would sell them to people like me, so I put together a big bag. I felt pretty darn good about myself because proceeds would help fund the library’s important programming. Although, at a dollar a pop, my books were barely a drop in the ocean.

At Christmas, I gave my books as gifts. Friends and family always asked to read my writing, so it seemed like a good idea. Turns out most people consider a book you wrote yourself to be a bit of a cop-out, as a gift — somewhere between self-promotion and free shampoo samples. My grandmother’s always happy to receive a book I contributed to, but everyone else seems to prefer homemade jam.

Books kept rolling in — wonderful for my writing career, not so wonderful for my tiny apartment.

And then one day, while walking home from my local community centre, I spotted a tiny house on someone’s front lawn. It was propped up on wooden post, which made it look somewhat like a birdhouse, but right at eye level and right next to the sidewalk.

Instead of birdseed, the tiny house contained books.

It was a Little Free Library: an adorable structure with flowers painted on both sides and a Plexiglas front door that swung open to reveal a world of reading. “Take a book. Return a book.” That’s what the sign said. No library card necessary. No late fees.

It was for anyone. It was for everyone.

Just a sweet little home for books, continuously stocked by members of the community.

“Hey,” I thought. “I’m a member of the community. Why don’t I contribute?”

As soon as I got home, I opened my big boxes of books and selected a few I thought the neighbours might like. The next day, I walked back to the Little Free Library. I’d only gone there to contribute content, but I spotted a novel by an author I’d been meaning to read for years. I came away with a book to devour and return — one that wouldn’t add to the clutter of my overstuffed bookshelf.

As the months went by, Little Free Libraries sprang up like flowers across the city. Everywhere I went, I seemed to stumble across one. I started carrying books with me so I’d always have something to contribute.

My collection of short story collections dwindled, and I felt great about getting them out into the world. What good were they doing boxed up in my living room? Books are meant to be read.

Every time I walked by a Little Free Library I’d contributed to, the last book I’d put in there was already snapped up by another eager reader. The libraries seemed to enjoy complete and frequent changeovers. Shelves didn’t stagnate. There was always something new.

Little Free Libraries became my go-to spot for book browsing. I still purchase new books by authors I cherish, but now I get the added pleasure of thinking, “When I’m finished, I get to share this with the entire neighbourhood!”

Last summer, I met the owner of that very first Little Free Library I came across. She was sitting on her porch, reading a book, of course. I thanked her for providing this wonderful resource to the community. She asked me if I’d read anything good lately.

At the end of our book chat, to my surprise, my neighbour thanked ME — not for contributing books to her library (I hadn’t disclosed that I’d done so), but for borrowing from it. She seemed genuinely overjoyed that the neighbours were using it.

People who live in big cities — and especially people like me, who live in huge apartment buildings — often don’t feel a special sense of community. We think that’s reserved for small towns. But after donating books I’ve read and books I’ve written to Little Free Libraries, I feel like I’m part of something. I felt a sense of belonging. And, unlike boxes of books, a feeling of community is something you can’t keep a lid on.

~Tanya Janke


Editors’ note: You can learn more at littlefreelibrary.org.

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