When Janelle Naess, owner of Laguna Beach Walks, takes a brisk stroll up Park Avenue, she often stops outside the home at 590 Park Ave. to catch her breath and check out the latest donations to the curbside Little Free Library (LFL), a free book exchange that operates under the “take a book, leave a book” philosophy. She’s not the only one—homeowner and little library steward Christopher Karl estimates that an average of 10 books are borrowed or donated to his unit every day.
Now expanding rapidly, the Little Free Library movement began in 2009 when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wis., built a small model of a one-room schoolhouse as a tribute to his mother, a former teacher who loved to read. He filled it with reading material and put it on a post in his front yard with a sign that read “free books.” The tiny library quickly caught the attention of friends and neighbors, and Todd found himself crafting more units for others. Rick Brooks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison also took notice and joined Todd to grow the effort into a social enterprise. Now a registered nonprofit, the LFL mission 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.”
The idea seems to be catching on: The first official Little Free Library was built in 2010, and today there are more than 36,000 worldwide, with six located in Laguna Beach (and more in the works). While each one in town seems to have a different theme—from art books to children’s books and pop culture—they all promote both literacy and a sense of community.
Little Free Libraries of Laguna
The concept behind the movement has been present in town since long before the first registered box appeared. In south Laguna, an unofficial free book exchange is part of what residents call the “little free corner.” Neighbors leave not only books, but also extra produce from their gardens and gently used, unwanted items that might be found at garage sales. In a community where the sharing philosophy was already in practice, it’s not surprising to find LFLs catching on.
The first official one in town was installed in 2013 by Laguna College of Art & Design (LCAD) Library Director Jennifer Martinez Wormser. “I thought it would be a nice way to share extra copies we have of some really great art books,” she says.
The library was custom-built to match the college’s Christian Abel-designed buildings. Located at the main campus in an area that is protected from the elements, it sits next to the LCAD Student Shuttle stop and the college’s Career Services office, making it easily accessible to LCAD students and faculty, as well as the general public that might stop by on their way through the canyon.
“It is a great way to share a love of knowledge, books and reading with the community,” Jennifer says. “For obvious reasons, it is a logical extension of our school library’s mission to advance the research and study of art and design. I hope some of the art books we’ve placed inside have inspired others to make something beautiful and creative.”
Resident Jeff Rovner also hopes to inspire others through his Little Free Library. He and his family installed their unit at their home on Jasmine Street in north Laguna in 2014. “We had reached the point where we simply had run out of shelf space,” he says. “The Little Free Library seemed like a good way to share our bounty of books and our love of reading with the community.”
In a fast-paced world, one of the benefits of a LFL is that it gets people to slow down. “We have often seen someone walking or jogging along our street, notice the LFL out of the corner of their eye, and then double back to stop and take a look,” Jeff says. “That sort of serendipity is hard to achieve at driving speed.”
It also encourages community bonding. Once people do stop, when the homeowners happen to be coming or going, they have spoken to and gotten to know a lot of people they would not have even met otherwise. “The LFL is a conversation starter and a magnet for positive encounters with strangers,” Jeff says.
He has not seen any downsides to owning a Little Free Library. Rather than acting as a competitor to the public library or its supporter, Friends of the Library, many feel that all three are working toward a common goal. “I’m inclined to think that our LFL encourages people to read more, and therefore promotes greater use of libraries, bookstores and other outlets for books,” Jeff says.
Resident Mary Shapero agrees. “Increased literacy can only help our public libraries,” she says. Mary installed her Top of the World Little Free Library in 2015 at her home at 3241 Crestwood Circle. “I wanted a place that neighborhood children may stop at on the way home from school. I wish there was one of these when my children were younger.”
Like Jeff, Mary and her family have found that connecting with the community is one of the perks of operating a LFL. Not only does she leave books for kids and adults, but for younger ones, sometimes she’ll leave little toys. “I think when you share anything, it increases the connectedness,” she says. “We take pride in our library and that translates to the whole neighborhood.” Her unit doesn’t have a particular style yet, but she is open to working with a local artist to jazz it up.
Christopher’s library design, which includes a wooden fisherman, was a collaboration with friend Kit Smith. “We wanted the library to be a book and story unto itself,” Christopher states. Two lithographic stone plaques were recently added on either side to establish dedication to Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, and Sister Laurette Gendron, the teacher who helped Christopher work through his learning disabilities to find a love (not fear) of words.
Christopher, a printmaker, installed the unit in 2014. He wanted to honor the written word and ink on paper, and see people happy and intrigued. “People look for a chance to really connect, and in a digital world, the LFL puts something tangible and shareable into folks’ hands, that can then be shared back,” Christopher says.
His advice for anyone thinking about starting a LFL is to be dedicated to the upkeep. “It is a living, breathing piece of art and needs care daily, almost like a pet,” he says. “If you aren’t going to stay active with it, let someone else do the job. You have to really care. It’s not just a fad or a trend.”
Becoming a Steward
The first step in starting a Little Free Library is to decide on a design. Jeff ordered his pre-built version from littlefreelibrary.org. He chose a simple look that is consistent with the craftsman architectural style of his home, but there are 23 options offered and prices begin at $149.95.
For those handy with a saw and hammer, check out the Neighborhood Library Builders Guild Facebook page, which offers plenty of examples and inspiring designs. Using recycled materials is encouraged—some builders have even transformed things like a grandfather clock, an English phone booth and a suitcase into libraries. The standard size is roughly 20 inches wide, 15 inches deep and 18 inches high. Littlefreelibrary.org offers downloadable blueprints and links to YouTube video instructions for those interested in building their own. While there are no rules about what a library looks like, using screws rather than nails, and several coats of stain, paint or sealer is recommended for sustainability. To add another component to the library, stewards may want to attach a Community Share Box ($49.95 at littlefreelibrary.org), which can be filled with free bookmarks, a guestbook, dog treats, seeds, recipes or community newsletters.
Once the unit is built or purchased, it must be installed in a place that is easily accessible to the public (check with the city’s Planning Commission first). Most libraries are mounted to a large, treated wood post placed in an approximately 24-inch-deep dirt hole. In order to be an official Little Free Library, it must be registered online or by mail for $40, which results in receiving a charter number and sign to attach to the library.
Libraries purchased through littlefreelibrary.org are automatically registered. Upon certification, stewards can add their library to the Little Free Library World Map online, which allows people to easily search and find libraries located in their neighborhood.
Next, fill it with books. “Our approach has been to have something for everyone—fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, classics, best-sellers,” Jeff says.
Lastly, spread the word by sending a press release to local newspapers, distributing fliers to neighbors, hosting a ribbon cutting or creating buzz on social media—and then enjoy the results.
“I think my husband and I get as much out [of] the library as do our visitors,” Mary says. “We have received so many nice notes, cards, drawings and letters—it warms our hearts. The nicest one was from a family that left us a note on Thanksgiving saying that they were thankful for our library. … That really made our day.”
— By Sharael Kolberg | Photos by Jody Tiongco for Laguna Beach Magazine