By Alyson Wong
First, a pop of purple catches the eye. Then, an emerald green angular box on a stick outfitted with a glinting silver roof sits eye level at a curb. Not far, another small box covered in Pokémon and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” illustrations stands out against muted cream residential homes. The off-kilter quality of these boxes is part of their charm. Are they mini storage sheds? Outdoor altars? Art sculptures? Eclectic mailboxes? Small-scale schoolhouses?
Perhaps these establishments are an amalgamation of all of the above. They are Little Free Libraries. These libraries can be seen on walks throughout the Richmond District or dotting other parts of the Bay Area. They are popular around the world and all have something in common; books. Though small, the outward-opening plexiglass doors on each library reveal a unique selection of books within. These book-sharing boxes offer 24/7 access to anyone walking by and are becoming increasingly common sightings.
The nonprofit Little Free Libraries (LFL) was cofounded in 2012 by Todd Bol and Rick Brooks. A few years prior, Todd Bol from Hudson, Wisconsin, built a one-room model schoolhouse and set it up in his front yard on a post. He filled it with books to honor his mother who was a teacher and book lover and this creative act later bloomed into a worldwide book-sharing movement rooted in community building, gift-sharing networks, and improving book access and literacy.
There are currently 10 officially registered LFLs in the Richmond District. Their locations are viewable on the LFL mobile app or online map tool. More than 125,000 libraries exist in more than 100 countries around the globe. Not all libraries are officially registered through the organization, however, and are often discovered through word of mouth, happenstance or even through Yelp.
Each library radiates its own unique personality. Some are painted bright, others are made out of repurposed containers, and of course there are the traditional solid-colored ones. The LFL website has kits for purchase to get started, though many opt for the do-it-yourself option. The books found within are just as eclectic as their structures, ranging from a children’s Spanish comic book of “El Filibusterismo” to cookbooks, modern architecture, a Japanese dictionary, and nonfiction literature to “How to Survive the Real World.”
Irene (who prefers to use just her first name) established the Fulton Street LFL in 2017 with the vision of it being Snoopy’s doghouse. Irene “liked the idea of having something that would build a sense of community” and remarked that it is in heavy use. She has had a terrific experience overall, despite some disheartening realities like finding the library hand built by her husband ripped off of its post or vandalized. Irene observed that her library circulation continues to run the gamut from magazines to kids’ books. They even include options in many languages, such as Chinese, Russian, Spanish and Korean.
LeAnna Nash majored in publishing and started her library in November 2021, on Fourth Avenue. She purchased a kit online and noted that it was well used during the pandemic.
“It makes me really happy to have it here and have people using it,” she said. “I care a lot about books and having representation for all things and a diverse Little Free Library is important to me.”
Susan Sterling opened her LFL on 18th Avenue in October 2014, and remembers only one other little library existing in the City then, at Kittredge Elementary School. She held a neighborhood launch party for its opening and encountered positive experiences like strengthened community and increased foot traffic. Similar to Irene’s library, the idea to turn hers into a food pantry during the pandemic was considered because people often left vegetables among other things inside. Space limits eliminated that option. Inspired by this experience at home, Sterling’s daughter started a library in the Bayview / Hunters Point which received a huge draw as well.
Richmond District public libraries closed at the start of the pandemic, eventually transitioning to offer pick-up service. They are now back open to the public. Libraries are not only a public source of information and entertainment, but also shelter, respite and community. Little Free Libraries are a beautiful homage to these public institutions and continue to connect neighbors over a mutual love for literature. Neighbors are bound to find one walking and may wish to drop off a book or peek inside for a new read.
For more information, go to littlefreelibraries.org.