When I received approval from our co-op board to start a Little Free Library (also known as little libraries) in front of our building in Harlem, New York City, I was brimming with ideas about what type of structure I wanted, where to put it, and how wonderful it would be for the neighborhood.
Our carpenter, a local guy who lives and works in Harlem, built the structure after a design by Chronicle Books. It had two sections: one for adult books and one for children’s books. The top had space where we could plant a tiny garden. While we were waiting for the structure to be built, my daughters and I spent hours looking through our personal library collection and setting books aside to put in the little library.
The day our carpenter installed it, my daughters and I proudly filled it up with our books. We inked each book with an Always A Gift, Never for Sale stamp on the inside cover. We had another bag of books ready to put in as people “checked out” books.
I thought about so many things when getting the library ready, but what I didn’t think about was how popular our Little Free Library would be.
Two hours after we filled up the little library, we took our dog Ginger Pye (note: naming pets after literary animals is one of the best parts about being a pet owner) for a walk and checked out our little library as we passed by.
It was completely empty. I knew it wasn’t one person who took all the books because our building super had been keeping an eye on it and said lots of people had stopped by and didn’t take more than one book each.
My daughters were ecstatic. “It’s working!” they cried. “People are taking books!”
I’m a compulsive worrier, so in addition to being excited at the little library’s success I added in a healthy dose of worry. Would I be able to keep up with the demand? How could I start a Little Free Library then not have enough books to keep it filled? I decided to clarify the expectations of the Little Free Library, in case people were new to the concept, so I created a sign and posted it on the sliding door.
My daughters and I filled the little library with our back-up books, officially depleting everything we had collected over the past month to give away. When those books disappeared by the next day, I realized I needed to be more proactive about keeping the library stocked.
Our little library gets a lot of traffic. Located next to a post office and within one block of three different public schools, books come in and out at a rate of 40-100 per day. On the adult side, the library is self-sustaining. The only intervention I need to do on the adult side is recycle the proselytizing leaflets and hefty Microsoft Windows manuals. (You’re welcome.)
On the children’s side, books fly off the shelves. Only about 5% of the children’s books get returned. I understand why there is such a low rate of return; my kids will read books dozens of times before putting it aside, only to pick it back up six months later and reread it again. I realized I needed to do some work to keep the children’s side stocked since I didn’t expect books to be returned quickly, or at all.
Here is what I’ve learned over the last four months of being a Little Free Library steward in a high-needs, highly trafficked neighborhood.
Six Ways to Keep Your Little Free Library Stocked
1. Let everyone in the neighborhood know about your Little Free Library. I sent out emails to our building’s resident email list and the Harlem parent list serve making my neighbors aware of the Little Free Library and asking people to bring any children’s books they are not reading anymore.
2. Go to public libraries and school libraries asking for discards. My daughters’ school has a shelf in the library for books that have been removed from the collection and are up for grabs. I take a handful for our little library every time I’m in there. (Which, to be honest, is pretty much every day.)
3. Check out free book exchanges. Last weekend, we headed down to Baltimore to visit family, and my husband and I took a trip to Baltimore’s The Book Thing, a warehouse filled with free books. I came prepared with a huge IKEA bag and might have raided the children’s section.
4. Check used bookstores for overflow or discards. My favorite used bookstore gets so many donations that they frequently donate books to organizations that serve high-needs populations. A few weeks ago they gave me a box of great children’s books for our little library.
5. Guilt people into helping you. I’m not ashamed to ask everyone I know for their books. When I visit relatives, I ask them to look through their bookshelves before I get there so I can take any books they don’t want. I tell the parents at my daughters’ school to bring me books they don’t read anymore. When I see people browsing at our little library, I ask them if they have any books they can contribute.
6. Sign up for First Book for reduced price children’s books and check out their National Book Bank Distributions for free books donated by their publishing partners. This is a new partnership with the Little Free Library organization. To qualify, your little library must be in an area where at least 70% of the kids are from low-income families.
Sometimes I get moments of doubt about our Little Free Library. Is someone taking all the books then selling them on eBay or to a used bookstore? Are the books being read or cluttering up a hoarder’s apartment? Is all the work of lugging books all around New York City in tote bags with straps that cut into my shoulders really worth it?
But then I spy kids stop by the little library, carefully selecting a book and opening it up right there to begin reading.
I hear squeals of excitement when a teenager sees a copy of a book series they love.
I see a guy stop by the little library at 11pm and watch as he unloads twenty children’s books from his backpack into the structure.
The Little Free Library is drawing the community together, just like libraries have done all over the world for so many generations. So I put empty tote bags into my purse, ready for another day of book scavenging.
It’s more than worth it.
To learn more about Little Free Libraries, visit www.littlefreelibrary.org.