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‘Free Little Library’ concept spreads from Midwest to rest of U.S.

Philip Vahab loves it when strangers wander to the odd, wooden box outside his Washington,D.C., rowhouse. Is it a birdhouse? Is it a fancy mailbox? Some ornamental, neighborhood talking point?

No. No. And kind of. The box is stuffed with paperbacks by authors from Dean Koontz and Don DeLillo, free for the taking. Borrowers can return them – if they want – or trade them for a different book.

At first blush, it might seem quaint. But the book house is a part of a burgeoning global literary movement just now taking root in the region.

“The Free Little Library” concept started four years ago in the Midwest, when an entrepreneur named Todd Bol watched his neighbors gobble up books placed outside his home. Back then, he dreamed that 2,500 similar libraries would be constructed by 2014. He was naive. There are already more than 10,000.

Bol cooked up the idea of the little free library in Hudson, Wis., in 2009. He was looking for a way to honor the generous nature of his mother, who had recently died. He created a model schoolhouse and stuffed it with books beloved by his parents, starting with Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation. He put up a sign that said, “Free Books.”

The power of books

His neighbors cooed.

“I’ve always been enthralled by how when a little puppy or kitty walks into a room and the toughest guys can start to be gentle,” said Bol, now 57. “I put up my library and noticed my neighbors talking to it like it was a little puppy. And I realized there was some kind of magic about it.”

Through the power of books, Bol said, he also saw the power of human interaction. People stopped at the library. They chatted and got to know each other.

“It’s that comfortable, common ground that produces an easy conversation and connection with each other,” Bol said.

Bol’s neighbors set up their own book houses. A friend took the concept to Madison, where it spread. Before long, Bol was featured on a local radio show. Then on the NBC Nightly News.

Then came calls from people interested in building their own libraries in places including Pakistan and Ukraine.

People asked for book houses, so he started a nonprofit group and hired former convicts to help him build them. At least 3,000 were planted throughout the world before the small libraries started sprouting in the Washington, D.C., region.

In the District of Columbia, the first recorded little library belongs to Vahab. He built it in January, thinking it might be an interesting experiment for his neighborhood. Since then, about a dozen mini-libraries have popped up in the city.

These rustic libraries offering ink-on-paper books are an archaic turn for the literary scene, as major bookstores close and public libraries march toward modernization. Of the 3.3 million books circulated in the District of Columbia’s library system last year, data show that more than 255,000 were e-books – a 149 percent increase from 2012. The circulation of printed books fell 18 percent.

Everyone loves a recipe

Those who have used the book houses say they offer some simple joys: the thrill of an unexpected find, the abandonment of Dewey-Decimal stodginess and – most of all – the creation of a new community space.

Areas have varying sensibilities. The classics stay for a bit in Vahab’s Washingtin neighborhood of Meridian Hill, but the self-help books go quickly. Few in Washington’s Cleveland Park region pick up the self-help books, but children’s books are always in high demand. In Alexandria, there isn’t much teen fiction. And in Berwyn Heights, Md., readers seem to be a little more highbrow: The romance novels and the mass-market mysteries often linger.

Everywhere in the region, though, there is one genre that is the most popular, according to the amateur librarians.

“Cookbooks go fast,” said Devon Steven, who started a small library near Washington’s H Street.

Apparently, everyone loves a new recipe.

No one is sure why book-sharing didn’t catch on quicker in the uber-educated, bike-share-loving District of Columbia. Steven thinks that more will emerge as neighborhoods are redeveloped.

Vahab said his neighbors’ chief concern was whether this venture is legal. No one has stopped him, though. His biggest concern? Whether anyone would vandalize the book house. So far, no one has.

“I was surprised that there were none here, because it’s such an urban area,” said Pamela Becker, who moved with her husband and two daughters to Arlington from State College, Pa., where she lived near a little library. “So I decided I was going to build one myself.”

Since her book house’s opening in June, Becker’s library has been so successful that she has lost track of how many books have been donated. Probably at least a hundred, she thinks.

Linnea Dodson, who planted a book house in Berwyn Heights that resembles a British tollbooth (a homage to British literature), said she has received notes of appreciation.

“Thanks so much!” one read. “This reminds me that there is good in the world.”

For Linda Greensfelder, a retired school nurse who lives in Cleveland Park, the greatest joy happens twice every weekday. It is when she catches glimpses of a mother and her 5-year-old son, going to and from school. He can’t go past the block without stopping by the little book house, looking for his next adventure.

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