Becky Abel sat on her front porch on a quiet street just off of Williamson Street and talked about her father. An English professor, he owned an extensive library of thousands of volumes, which Abel inherited when he died earlier this year.
"I'm keeping every book he wrote a note in," Abel explains with conviction. But that's a lot of books, and to clear her bookshelves, she's weeding out the old novels and other books in the house she shares with her husband, John Coleman, and two children.
To help solve the problem and as a birthday present to Abel, this spring Coleman and their son Sam built a "Little Free Library" to match their house and planted it in their narrow front yard right near the sidewalk. Abel says she has deposited about 150 of her used books in the little library, and about 30 have been deposited by others.
An ornithologist and a widely recognized expert in trumpeter swans, Abel applies her love of data to her little library. She eagerly shows me a spreadsheet where she's compiled a list of every book that has come and gone and the dates on which they arrived and left.
June 16 of this year was a big day for her Dickinson Street library. On that day someone dropped off Romance 101: Lessons in Love, The Problems of Work, Man Talk, How to Fall Out of Love, Caffeine Blues, The Pleasure Prescription, When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple and On the Edge of Darkness. The problems of relationships and jobs leading to drugs and eventual resignation to a life spent alone seem to resonate on the east side. Almost all of the titles were gone in a day.
Little Free Libraries have taken off in the three years since the concept was invented by Todd Bol and Rick Brooks. Bol installed the first one in his hometown of Hudson, just across the bridge from the Twin Cities. Madisonian Brooks, who works for the University of Wisconsin-Extension, planted the second along the bike path that runs behind Absolutely Art and Café Zoma, which front on Atwood Avenue. Today there are well over 3,000 little libraries in every state and all over the world.
Each library has a sponsor, and in the case of the inaugural Madison library and several others, that sponsor is Meghan Blake-Horst, owner of Absolutely Art. A longtime acquaintance of Brooks, she took on the cause with zeal. In addition to the historic bike trail box, the Café Zoma backyard hosts several little libraries, showcasing the various designs, which Blake-Horst sells from her shop; she'll also ship anywhere. She estimates that she has sold two or three hundred, and business is brisk.
The little libraries are really little, about two feet by 20 inches and about a foot deep. They're usually mounted on a post near a sidewalk at about chest height. You can buy them ready-made in several designs ranging in price from $150 for a basic box to $600 for the very cool "Little British Phone Booth Library."
Or you can be like Coleman and his son and build your own, from scratch. For their project they used leftover bead board from a kitchen project and shingles from a new roof on their home. Ten-year-old Sam was somewhat concerned that their library was not purely recycled. Some new screws were purchased at the corner Ace Hardware store. Sam learned that life is full of such moral challenges and compromises.
Moral challenges and compromises come with the territory for sponsors of Little Free Libraries. Lindsey Lee is one of Madison's most successful coffeemongers. I talked with him at his first shop, Ground Zero, on Williamson Street. Lee built his own little library right inside his shop using an old bright red bookcase and a decorative roof that he fashioned out of sheet metal.
He said that he needs to "curate" his library, occasionally weeding out material that seems inappropriate. Blake-Horst said that she sometimes has to do that as well, though both expressed a desire to welcome all points of view in their small First Amendment shrines. When asked what she felt the need to remove, Blake-Horst mentioned that someone had dropped off a doctoral thesis in one of her libraries. I agreed with her that no one who is not sitting on a review committee should be exposed to a doctoral dissertation.
As I rummaged through Becky Abel's little library, I noticed that in the progression of self-help books, Man Talk and How to Fall Out of Love had not yet been claimed. So, I decided to do a little cross-cultural seeding. I put them in my pouch and biked them back to my west-side neighborhood, depositing them in a little library on Eton Ridge.
I checked this morning. They're gone. Someone might be being talked to right now in words he can understand about the need to go their separate ways. And if they don't want to move all those books, there's a solution close at hand.