We saw our first one last year on the boardwalk in Long Beach.
Our family was strolling on a late summer’s night when a brightly colored wooden box grabbed our attention. It sat on the rail, with a glass-framed door and books inside. The sign on its top read: Little Free Library.
We thought it was a one-off. We didn’t realize we had stumbled on a worldwide movement.
A guy in Wisconsin started it nine years ago. He wanted to do something to honor his late mother. So at the end of his driveway he erected a wooden box, filled it with books and employed a simple governing principle:
Take a book. Return a book.
That’s it. Borrow a book to read, and perhaps replace with one for the next person.
On the Long Beach boardwalk, the attraction was obvious. You bring a book out to the sand, while away the hours, then return it on your way home.
My wife was so enamored that my daughters gave us our own Little Free Library last Christmas. We assembled and installed it outside our house the next day, and stocked it with books. Then we waited, curious to see who, if anyone, would use it.
Winter tends to keep people off the streets, but before too long books began disappearing. And being replaced with others. And being returned. And taken out again.
We don’t know most of our patrons, but that’s part of the fun. Whoever they are, we’re all in this together.
One user, we think, is Lisa. That’s the name someone signed to a message inside the cover of Jay Asher’s young adult novel “Thirteen Reasons Why”: “I hope the next person reading this book enjoys it as much as I did!”
A grandmother walking by told us she visits the box with her granddaughter. Other passers-by have asked whether it’s OK to just take a book. That’s the point, we say. Curious sanitation workers and mail carriers have made inquiries. Our box is a novelty in our neighborhood.
But it’s one of about 90 scattered around Long Island, according to an online map kept by the Little Free Library organization started by Todd Bol, the man from Wisconsin. And it’s one of 70,000 in 85 countries around the world, a reminder that each of us is part of all sorts of communities whether we know it or not.
It’s interesting that these boxes are sprouting at a time when public libraries are more popular than ever. And when reading, supposedly, is falling out of fashion. They aren’t meant to supplant a public library branch, but they are complementary in a particular way — they give people a chance to share with neighbors the books that meant something to them. It’s a literary form of recycling.
Because when you take a book off a shelf, you give it another life. Or two or three.
We filled our library at the start mostly with books for kids and adults. And that’s mostly what have appeared. The Dr. Seuss books have gone and come back and gone again. Cat books have been popular.
But I’m proud of the eclectic collection in our little green box. I like what it says about the neighborhood. It includes Mitch Albom and Nora Roberts and Frank McCourt, “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Marley & Me,” two books from the Magic Tree House children’s series, a couple of biographies, and an accounting of the Yankees’ 2009 World Series championship. And a graphic novel left, we think, by a junior high school-aged girl on a bicycle who stopped by last week.
The books come and go. We still don’t know everyone who’s participating, but we’re all part of each other now, whoever we are.
Who doesn’t love a good mystery?
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.