Free books encourage reading, sharing, community spirit

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Volunteer Danielle Olson and Lents advocate Rusty Bonham checks out the books at one of the mini-libraries in the neighborhood. School’s out for summer, and that means many students will stop reading, setting them back academically come fall.

Some neighborly folks in East Portland have an antidote for that: Little Free Libraries.

In February, 10 miniature lending libraries popped up in front of peoples’ homes in a small pocket of the Lents neighborhood. Each of the two-shelf cabinets mounted atop posts is filled with up to 50 or more books for youth and adult readers. Passers-by are invited to borrow a book and return it when done, or donate their own books to the collection.

The idea is to build literacy and a love for reading by taking libraries out to where people live. Equally important, Little Free Libraries become neighborhood water coolers, a way for folks to get to know their neighbors and build community.

The Lents libraries went up in February, and hosts say they’re getting heavily used.

“I had for awhile a whole series of vampire books and they were gone like that,” says Mic Marusek, who hosts one of the 10 mini-libraries at her home across the street from Glenwood Park. One neighbor, who Mic had never seen interact with anyone on the block, stopped to rave about their library. “I’ve probably read your whole top shelf,” she relayed.

Riza and Tim Noyama-Zee moved into the Lents area recently, and figured their little library would help them connect with neighbors.

It has.

“Having something like this gives people an excuse to stop and talk,” says Riza Noyama-Zee. “We come and find boxes of books laid out in front of our yard.”

She also stocks the two-shelf cabinet with magazines. “I saw some kids fighting over a National Geographic.”

Community of readers

For several years, a smattering of community-minded Portlanders have been placing poems or books in boxes in front of their homes for passers-by to read. The ideas seems to be catching on.

Todd Bol set up one in Hudson, Wis., in 2009 in honor of his mother. The idea seemed so popular — and powerful — that he co-founded a nonprofit called Little Free Library Ltd. to promote the idea internationally.

Rusty Bonham says three different people came up with plans to put up little libraries in Lents around the same time last fall. One of them was Laura Jones, a library assistant at Kelly Elementary School, where Bonham previously worked as an educational aide.

“As a school librarian, my main motivation is to get kids to read,” Jones says. “And essential to that goal is to create a community of readers: at home, in the school, in the neighborhood, and beyond.”

One of the others was Danielle Olson, then enrolled in a master’s of fine arts program in collaborative design at Pacific Northwest College of Art, located in the Pearl District. Though she lives on the west side, Olson took on the project in Lents after taking a design class focused on the East Portland Action Plan, a menu of ideas to foster community development east of 82nd Avenue.

Eventually, several people came together and decided to make it a neighborhood project in a pocket of Lents. Bonham helped recruit more volunteers willing to host Little Free Libraries within a several-block radius from his home.

Bonham and Brandon Ensz assembled supplies and prepared building kits for participants, complete with cedar shakes, cement, tar paper, wood posts, specifications and other materials. Estimated cost for each library: about $75.

Bonham and others organized a “building blitz” in January at Kelly Elementary School to construct the libraries.

Eclectic selection

Offerings change daily, but the libraries typically are stocked with numerous books tailored for younger readers, as well as novels and nonfiction books for other readers. Jennifer Dynes’ library at Southeast Henderson Street and 87th Avenue recently had Jean Auel’s “Mammoth Hunters,” “The Boys from Brazil” and a new international version of the Bible.

Other Lents libraries had Frank McCourt’s “Tis,” three books by Anne Rice, “Mary Poppins,” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Lents readers are eclectic, with some scooping up college math textbooks and other books in Russian.

Each of the 10 hosts added their own decorations or other touches to their libraries. Dynes added a hand-painted sign: “Take a book? Yes! Donate a book!”

Gary Porter’s library on Southeast 83rd Avenue and Knapp Street includes a tiny solar receptor, allowing his library to be lit at night.

Jalene and Justin Littlejohn gather rainwater falling on their library roof via a tiny rain barrel, which directs water to a flower box below.

Riza and Tim Noyama-Zee planted a low-slung apple tree, training its branches to grow horizontally along their front fence next to their library. Eventually, visitors can fetch an apple and reading material when they stop by. They also produced custom bookplates to identify the books, and remind people where to return them.

In isolated cases, people have been known to take a whole shelf of books at a time, perhaps with an intent to sell them. But that doesn’t appear to be a significant problem, as it’s easy to replenish the stock, and people find out the resale market for such used books isn’t that lucrative.

“I’ve become less attached to the idea of the books returning,” Noyama-Zee says of her library. “Often I find it fuller than I left it.”

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