I was out for a walk when I saw one. A Little Free Library, perched beside the road.
It’s a glorified wooden box on a post, shaped like a miniature schoolhouse. I looked inside. It was filled to the brim with food. Ramen noodles, dried pasta, tuna cans, mayonnaise, pepperoni, you name it.
There was a note: “Take all you need. Eat all you take. It’s free.”
I can’t think of a happier word than “free.” Just saying the word makes me feel good. If we as a nation wanted to boost the happiness ratio, all we’d have to do is start using the phrase “free puppies.” These words are scientifically proven to ruin your upholstery and cover you in pet dander. But they also make you happy.
I was once in a band that—this is true—wanted to get more gigs, so we temporarily named ourselves “Free Beer.” When the local bar put our band’s name on the outdoor marquee, it read: “Free Beer Tonite!”
We had a whole room full of people who were very angry with us. But the point is, it actually worked because everyone likes free stuff.
The woman who owned the library saw me in her front yard and came outside. She was wearing a facemask.
“It gets more action that you’d think,” she said, keeping her distance. “We’ve had people stopping by, sometimes several times per day, every little bit helps someone in need.”
Her Little Free Library is normally filled with books, she said. But since the quarantine, she decided to fill it with food and toiletries for the needy. She’s not the only one doing this. People all over the U.S. have been doing this with their Little Free Libraries.
“Last week,” she went on, “We had a family of three wipe us out. Their dad told me he’d lost his job, this little library has kept his kids eating.”
Suddenly, I wished I would have brought some food.
Chances are, you’ve probably seen these libraries before. They’re everywhere. Most of them are registered online, too, so you can look them up. As of right now, there are Little Free Libraries in 108 countries, and in almost every world city.
Even miniscule towns have them. They’re unassuming, almost hidden. They’re creative, colorful, and usually cute-looking. On street corners, churches, neighborhoods, parks, gas stations, etc.
The first one I ever saw was on vacation in Indian Pass, Florida. I’d just had lower back surgery. There was a six-inch scar on my lower back, laced with stitches. I was cut up like flank steak. I was trying to get over traumatic memories of a heavy-handed nurse who said to me, “Just relax. You won’t even feel this urinary catheter.”
Lies. Pure lies.
So anyway, on this vacation my wife forced me to go for daily walks as a kind of rehab. We started with one mile. She increased it to two. There was this Little Free Library on our route. A miniature blue schoolhouse. I opened the door and there were books inside.
I’m a book fanatic. I took a book, read it, and the next day I swapped it for another. I read about 10 books on that vacation thanks to that library.
They weren’t great books, keep in mind. Little Free Libraries don’t typically have a wide selection. You’ll find some off-the-wall ones. Such as Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” or “The Complete Guide to Having Your First C-Section,” or “Sandi Patty Discovers the Meaning of Christmas.”
But like I said. They were free.
As it happens, during this quarantine, Little Free Libraries have been cropping up all over the U.S. Many Free Library owners have been replacing their books with food, toiletries, hygiene products, and dried goods.
This got me to doing a little research, which led me through a wormhole of pictures and stories of people all over the country who are passionate about these things. How passionate are they? One guy installed a blinking neon-light sign on his Little Free Library.
The whole library idea started with Todd Bol, in Hudson, Wisconsin, about 10 years ago. On a whim, he built a little schoolhouse-shaped box, filled it with books, and stuck it by his mailbox. He did this in honor of his mother.
People loved it. The idea spread like a brush fire. In one year, Little Free Libraries were spreading across the Midwest, the East Coast, into Canada, and overseas.
After a few years, the Little Free Library organization was receiving prizes from the American Library Association. After a few more years, they were grabbing the attention of the “New York Times,” the “Washington Post,” and “USA Today.”
And they just kept spreading. You couldn’t stop them. That’s how good ideas are.
Then things got even better. A few years ago, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Jessica McClard opened the first Little Free Pantry, filling wooden boxes with food, paper items, and dried goods. Three months later, Little Free Pantries had gone global. There were hundreds of them.
“It changes you,” said the library owner I met. “When someone feeds their kids on food left by complete strangers, from your library, it changes you.”
I guess it’s almost hard to believe it all started from a tiny wooden box perched in Todd Bol’s front yard. It’s also hard to believe that as of today there are more than 100,000 Little Free Libraries, worldwide.
Well. After today that number will rise. Because I’ve decided to build one myself.
Mine will have a sign that reads “Free Beer.”
cronkitesue - April 25, 2020 6:51 am
Debbie Phillips Hughett - April 25, 2020 10:37 am
There’s one near me in a quaint city park. It has frequent visitors. I had no idea it was part of something so grand.
Cynthia Harmon - April 25, 2020 10:47 am
The little library in my neighborhood has done the same thing. We are also asking food trucks to come so we can support our local restaurants. The goodness of people has come out more during this time.
Ed - April 25, 2020 10:54 am
Thank you Sean
Curtis Lee Zeitelhack - April 25, 2020 11:06 am
Bless Todd Bol, the 100,000+ people who put up and maintain a Little Free Library, Jessica McClard and the same kind of people, who put up Lilttle Free Pantries. And now, bless you, Sean, for inspiring the rest of us. I don’t think I’d use “Free Beer” to attract readers or those in need of food, but it has a certain ring to it. It might catch on.
Beth Ann Chiles - April 25, 2020 11:07 am
They are THE best thing whether they have books or pantry items. i have one up at a local produce market and it gets a lot of traffic during tourist season especially. I am keep books in mine during this whole pandemic thing as the libraries are closed (although they are doing curbside pickup) and I felt like it was a good thing to keep it open. I monitor it, wipe books down and trade books out now and then. I haven’t thought about putting beer in it but you might be onto something there! Thanks for sharing the Little Free Library movement!
Denise DeVries - April 25, 2020 12:14 pm
Love it. It’s amazing how something so small can growso big WITH LOVE AND GENEROUSITY.
flagal44 - April 25, 2020 12:24 pm
I’d love to see you write about Indian Pass, The Raw Bar with all the plastic chairs out front and honor system beverage tabs, the house band, the Currys. Apalachicola to Indian Pass is “old Florida” for me. Any further west and it’s all condos and Alabamians (no offense). in Indian Pass, no condos allowed, folks Living near the beach have red lights when the turtles are nesting so the hatchlings won’t get disoriented following the moon to the ocean. I haven’t been there since the hurricane.
Debbie Galleher - April 25, 2020 12:25 pm
Friends of ours built one in Damascus ,Virginia in memory of their grandson. It has helped them to face their grief and in a very positive way ♥️♥️ I will send this story to her this morning.
Debbie ( @idrivethebackroads) )
Karen Erwin-Brown - April 25, 2020 12:25 pm
you are such a hoot. you should get lots of traffic.
shellypain - April 25, 2020 1:14 pm
I have been the proud owner of a little library for about six years. I love to look out my window and watch as people stop and peruse the offerings. Sometimes people pull up in their cars with a handful of books to add. It’s just dandy.
Rebecca - April 25, 2020 3:01 pm
Sean, you remind us of the good in the world! And there are awesome people who have great ideas! AND I rely on you for their stories because the media is obsessed with ‘fake biased news’ and Most won’t publish ‘good news!’ YOUR column lifts me up and brings me joy! God bless!
Tammy Moody - April 25, 2020 4:25 pm
Even our small village of 400 has a Free Library! I’m going to go put some food in it right now!! Thanks for the idea!!♥
Linda Moon - April 25, 2020 4:33 pm
From one book fanatic to another, Sean, I love Little Free Libraries, too. But I diverge with you about “free puppies”. I would be happy with “free kittens”. I never heard of Little Free Pantries ’til today. Thank you, Todd Bol and Jessica McClard! And, Sean, if you ever run across Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in one of those library boxes, mail it to me. I’ll reimburse you for mailing expenses plus the cost of the book!
Smalltown Southern Girl - April 25, 2020 4:59 pm
Thank you Sean, you are such a light in the darkness. The spread of the little free libraries/food pantries reminds me of a lyric from long, long ago:: “..and if everyone lit just one little candle, what a bright world this would be.”
Harriet White - Atlanta - April 25, 2020 9:24 pm
I loved this post. Free beer, free books and free puppies.
Joe VanDyke - April 25, 2020 9:54 pm
Thank you Sean. Saw you a couple of months ago in Southaven, MS. I was the Ass’t DA. So glad for your website since I am on a Facebook sabbatical. Love the stuff you write. Unlike the editor in Atlanta, I need a daily dose of “good”.
Linda - April 25, 2020 9:58 pm
Love this column today. I hope it spreads a lot more because of your writing about it…..
Jeannie Schweck - April 25, 2020 11:30 pm
I have seen 3 different Sean Dietrich books in our neighborhood Little Free Library. They are read and shared by many!!!!
Chasity Davis Ritter - April 26, 2020 2:02 am
I live in a little town compared to many others but bigger than some of the ones around us here in Western Oklahoma but we have about 4 or 5 of these spread around town as well as Help.. a food panty that wmrt donates lots of food to daily and few other churches have food pantries too. I’m so proud of our little town. And since the schools have been closed daily lunches and something for breakfast I believe has been provided 5 days a week about about 8 locations around town so that kids who got most of their food from school would continue to get daily food as well. Right now as crazy as the word is it’s so great to see people pulling together and volunteering and doing things like this. I have the leaky eyes thinking how one man who wanted to honor his momma kinda got this whole ball rolling. Food nourishes our bodies but books of any kind are food for the mind and soul I believe. And where oh where would we be without mommas??? Bless you Sean for building your own little free library. And for nourishing my soul a little every day.
Mary M Berryman - April 26, 2020 12:39 pm
You nourish my soul a little bit everyday, too, Sean. I save your column for a “treat”, like a box of chocolates for a time during my day when I need a lift. Thanks for what you do!
Anne Grace - April 27, 2020 12:56 am
The Little Free Library is still here in Indian Pass, Sean. Come see us when you get back to the best beach neighborhood in Florida
Priscilla Veldt - April 27, 2020 2:13 am
Todd Bol was a real hero! It’s amazing how that one little idea of his took off and kept growing, how it’s now inspiring acts of kindness and support of strangers all over. I am a nurse at a hospital in MN and had the honor of taking care of Mr Bol during his brief battle with cancer. He was truly a treasure! His legacy is large and will live on….
Carol Rothwell - May 1, 2020 3:05 pm
You bad!!,😜But then again you so sweet and Good😇!!
Love ya !