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.”