Walking with my daughter in Washington, D.C., this summer I discovered a phenomenon I love.
As we passed by the elegant houses in her Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, I noticed a few homeowners had placed plastic storage boxes filled with books at the edge of their front yards with signs saying, “Take Books For Free” or “Take a Book. Leave a Book.”
Others residents had little bird feeder-looking structures, perched on posts, inscribed with the words “Little Free Library: Take a Book Leave a Book.”
I happily selected two books from a plastic box full of free books, and congratulated myself for saving the almost $30 I would be spending in a few days at the Dulles Airport book store to buy two new paperbacks to read on the 10-hour flight home to Hawaii.
I decided to start my own front-yard book exchange when I got home. But more on that later.
Turns out neighborhood book exchanges have been expanding on the mainland for the last five years. But apparently not here in Hawaii.
By checking out the book-sharing website Little Free Library, I found only five Hawaii residents had registered their front-yard book exchanges — two in Pearl City, Oahu, two on the Big Island and a woman in Wailuku, Maui.
I got in touch with Chrissy Hammett of Wailuku who told me she started her Little Free Library in March 2014 in front of her house at Mission and Mill Streets.
“It has really taken off, which is awesome, “ says Hammett.
She says it’s been easy keeping her three-shelf book exchange stocked with about 40 paperbacks, everything from self-help tomes to detective novels and some children’s books.
One of Hammett’s borrowers is a homeless man who she says is constantly urging her to stock more mysteries.
Hammett says people are always donating boxes of books to help her maintain her collection. Sometimes she grabs one of the donated books to read herself before putting it into her library for exchange.
“It’s been really cool to meet some of my neighbors. I love knowing that people are enjoying the library,” she says.
As long as people have been reading, they have exchanged books.
This current book exchange craze was sparked in Hudson, Wisconsin, in 2009, after carpenter-craftsman Todd Bol erected a little red schoolhouse on a pole in his front yard to honor his late school teacher mother. To pay tribute to his mother’s love of reading, Bol stocked the schoolhouse replica with dozens books to give to passers-by for free.
Friends and neighbors who took Bol’s books were intrigued and asked him for advice on how to start their own book exchanges. Bol built 30 book-exchange houses to help them get started.
As interest grew, Bol partnered with community development educator Rick Brooks to form the nonprofit Little Free Library.
Their original goal was to create more mini-libraries than the 2,510 public libraries founded by the 19th century industrialist Andrew Carnegie. They quickly exceeded that goal.
As of today, Little Free Library has registered more than 30,000 front-yard book exchanges all over the United States and in 80 countries from the Sudan to the steppes of Outer Mongolia.
“It’s just really taken off, “ says Kris Huson, marketing and communications director for Little Free Library.
The notion of sharing books from home fits in well with today’s sharing economy.
“We are all in this together, “ says Maui book-exchanger Hammett. “There is no need to buy or sell things. Let’s all share. The joy of giving is worth it.”
Hawaii State Librarian Stacey Aldrich says, “I love this desire to share. It emphasizes how much people still enjoy books.”
The common trait of Free Library stewards is they are generous people who love to read and want to make sure others have access to books, says marketing director Huson.
Huson says a key goal now is to launch more Free Libraries in areas she calls “book deserts” — rural areas where there are no public libraries or in areas where transportation is difficult for impoverished residents who are trying to get to libraries.
“This is a super important part of our outreach to get books into areas of high need,” says Huson.
One such area of high need is on Hawaii Island where Robin Vaughn set up her Little Free Library two years ago.
Vaughn lives on the lava slopes above Milolii, the last remaining fishing village in Hawaii, about 33 miles away from the nearest bookstores and state library branch.
“We are so rural, I thought this would be a great way to exchange books with neighbors,” Vaughn says.
Vaughn’s library, sticking out of a lava field, looks like a mini-version of her house. She says it is flourishing, with many regular book donors and users. “Occasionally we’ll receive a request for a specific book or author, so when we hit the thrift stores we look for those.”
Vaughn says if she had to do it all over again, “I would make it two or three times larger. We have about 100 books that are in boxes waiting to rotate into the library. The neighbors keep bringing more books.”
State Librarian Aldrich says in the future it would helpful for the Hawaii library system to get together with people like Vaughn who have set up private book exchanges in rural areas as a way for the state libraries to get more books out to Hawaii’s remote areas.
“The more resources we have to make books available to everyone, the better,” says Aldrich.
Huson says the great thing about book exchanges is that there are no rules.
All that’s needed to start is a sign and a weatherproof container to hold books. People have made their book containers out of everything from plastic storage boxes to beer coolers to old filing cabinets.
Others take a more formal approach. They have either built or ordered little book houses online to hold their books. Thousands have registered their exchanges with littlefreelibrary.org . For a $40 fee, Little Free Library gives what it calls its “library stewards” a charter number, a sign and continuing support and advice about how to reach more readers. Library stewards are also are offered the opportunity to have their book exchanges put on a world map of Little Free Libraries.
The Little Free Library organization sustains itself by selling kits to build book exchange structures as well as ready-to-go book houses handcrafted by two Amish carpenters and other products to promote reading.
I call Little Free Library’s bird feeder looking book houses “Feeders for Readers.”
The stated goal of the organization is “To promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide and to build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity and wisdom across generations.”
Huson says: “In communities where police departments have sponsored Little Free Libraries, crime has decreased and in other neighborhoods, people say the book exchange on their street has prompted them to speak to their neighbors for the first time ever.”
She says there have been cases of vandalism of book houses but when that happens there is push back from enraged neighbors.
“Vandalizing a Little Free Library is seen as very bad act like wrecking a kid’s lemonade stand,” says Huson.
I opened my own front-yard book exchange in our Diamond Head neighborhood with 19 books on Friday.
The books were placed in a new plastic storage box perched on a lava rock wall by our mailbox.
My sign was written on an erase board I bought for $1.50 from the Kaimuki Goodwill. It says: “Little Free Library. Take a Book From the Box. Bring a Book to Share. Open 24/7. Malama Pono. Books Forever!”
Some of the books in the box are from my own collection. I bought others from the Kaimuki Library to jazz up my own mostly non-fiction offerings which I worried might be too boring to entice new users.
Many people walk down our road each day on their way to go swimming at Kaalawai Beach. So far, they have taken 13 of my original 19 books and left four books as donations. The four novels given to my library are written by the 19th century English author Anthony Trollope. I am not sure that Trollope has a huge fan base in our beach-going neighborhood. But you never know. That’s the beauty of a book exchange.
Since my grand opening, neighbors have emailed saying they plan to help by donating books.
The best part is my users are responding. When my husband started driving up our driveway Saturday, a woman who was checking out my book box looked up to insist he please tell me “thank you.”
Maui book exchanger Hammett is right. It is a good feeling, this sharing.