Adorned with stained glass or tiny wreaths, some are as decorative as they are enchanting. Others let their contents do the talking.
“Mine is pretty plain,” says Wanda Jewell from her home along Yale Avenue in Columbia.
What are they?
That’s what walkers, joggers and even a few drivers have been wanting to know. Loaded with books and perched atop posts in front of houses or in public places, these “libraries” in miniature form have become something of a phenomenon.
“People have been putting them up all over the country,” says Jewell, who put hers up in her Sherwood Forest neighborhood in October. “It’s a whole movement.”
Started by a Wisconsin man who wanted to honor his mother, a retired schoolteacher, the first Little Free Library went up in Hudson, Wis., in 2009 and was built to look like a one-room school house.
Today there are an estimated 10,000 to 11,000 Little Free Libraries in 52 countries, according to the organization’s website. Libraries have been spotted in Manhattan and in Harvard Square and are feeding readers’ hunger for a good book in such places as the Ukraine, Slovakia, Honduras, Nigeria, Uganda, Japan, China and Korea.
The idea behind them is simple. Library enthusiasts either custom make their own – Jewell had hers made locally – or order a pre-made model from www.littlefreelibrary.org. Owners, or stewards as they are called, can then register their Little Free Library on the website, which features a map of the libraries.
Once the library is in place, visitors then “take a book or return a book” as the libraries’ motto suggests.
And now it seems the “movement” has come to Columbia. In fact, since August, about a half dozen Little Free Libraries have gone up around the Midlands with reports of more in approximately ten cities around South Carolina.
Stewards say their pint-size, outdoor, literary collections not only promote literacy and a love of books but bring neighborhoods and communities together.
“I have met more neighbors in just the last few months than in the two years we’ve been here,” says Lorien Owens about her Little Free Library, which happens to resemble a British phone booth.
After “rediscovering the joys of reading” just a few years ago, Owens says she wanted to do something that would involve books. So when she learned that Shandon and the Old Woodlands neighborhoods each had two, she decided it was time Forest Acres had a Little Free Library of its own.
In order to purchase a pre-made model, Owens raised money through the fundraising website, Kickstarter. After the library went up in October, Owens began seeing or running into neighbors checking out the phone booth’s books. And her three children have gotten into the act as well.
“They are thrilled and will of course fight to see who gets to check it,” she says.
A lot of the books the Owens family first stocked their library with were children’s outgrown books.
“So it was a good way to pass along books that we enjoyed as a family and that they enjoyed reading. … It’s just a fun thing to do.”
Linda Suber agrees. Part of the fun she says has been watching who stops by.
“We have lots of joggers and dog walkers and people pushing baby strollers,” she says of her neighborhood in the heart of Shandon. “Sometimes I catch them checking out the library (as I’m looking) out the window. You can see them reading the sign and can tell they’re not real sure they should take a book.”
Suber’s library, thought to be the first in Columbia, even contains a guest book where readers can leave their name and a comment as many do.
“One day, someone wrote, ‘Brought my 98-year-old mother by and she had such a good time,’” says Suber. “And I think I saw them out there for quite some time. So that was a lot of fun.”
Her library, which features a barred owl, butterflies and fairies peeking out over flowers, was painted by local artist Cathy Sligh.
“They are all different,” she says. “That’s what makes them so much fun.”
Over in the Hampton-Leas neighborhood in the Old Woodlands part of Columbia, Amber Lipari is considering changing hers up.
“The kids love it,” she says. “So it may become an all-children’s library.”
Painted to match her house, Lipari’s Little Free Library, which went up in September, has become a frequent stop among the neighborhood’s children. It’s easy to see why: The little white box stuffed with books is nestled along a cul-de-sac of tall family-size homes.
“I’ll be sitting here with my cup of coffee and it will be early and there will be kids and their parents out there going through the books,” she says laughing.
There’s even a Little Free Library at the West Columbia Riverwalk, a project spearheaded by teacher and West Columbia city Councilwoman Casey Jordan Hallman.
Jordan Hallman got the idea for a library at the Riverwalk after seeing a news story about Suber’s. She and sanitation/streets superintendent Jamie Hook, who built the box for the Riverwalk’s library, paid several visits to Suber’s library in Shandon. The Hook family covered the cost of construction and the family of the late West Columbia Mayor Wyman M. “Mac” Rish, donated its sign, which reads “Rish’s Riverfront Readers” and “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.”
“Ours is a little bit different, because (Suber’s) is a neighborhood library,” she says. “We are getting people from all over.”
Some who are regulars at the Riverwalk are now stopping by to check out the library, which also has a guest book, she says.
Parks and city officials have been so overwhelmed by the community’s response to the Riverwalk library they are considering installing more Little Free Libraries possibly in other public places or in partnership with neighborhoods, Jordan Hallman says.
Whatever the case, custodians of the little libraries say passersby seem to love them and often become “repeat visitors.”
“Someone stops by almost every day,” says Jewell back at her home on Yale Avenue. “It’s all I can do not to run out there and talk to them.”
Jewell says quite often her books will disappear never to return while different books will show up in their place. And that’s OK. As executive director of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance and a lifelong reader, she usually finds herself with an overabundance of books.
“That’s one thing I won’t run out of,” she says laughing. “It’s kind of like, ‘Take these books – please.’ That’s my motto and that’s what (my library) should say.”
Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8362.